Scholars have been analyzing the structure of drama for nearly as long as it’s been written or performed. One of the more notable studies belongs to nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag and his “Die Technik des Dramas” (Technique of the Drama).
He didn’t originate the concept, mind you, Aristotle introduced the idea of the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe—beginning, middle, and ending—three-act plot structure, which was later replaced with drama critic Horace’s five-act structure.
But creators are never satisfied with the status quo, so when playwrights began toying around with three and four-act plays, Freytag wrote a definitive structure study—referred to as Freytag Pyramid—that explained the necessity of dividing a standard drama into the following five acts:
Stage 1: Exposition—as discussed in an earlier post—introduces the setting of the story, the characters, their situation, atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict. Traditionally, exposition occurs during the opening scenes of a story, and when expertly executed background information is only gradually revealed through dialogue between major and minor characters.
Stage 2: Rising action—sometimes called complication and development—begins with the point of attack that sets a chain of actions in motion by either initiating or accelerating conflict. Difficulties arise, which intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time. Complications usually come in the form of the discovery of new information, the unexpected opposition to a plan, the necessity of making a choice, characters acting out of ignorance or from outside sources such as war or natural disasters.
In this stage, the related series of incidents always build toward the point of greatest interest.
Stage 3: Climax—is the turning point, where the protagonist’s journey is changed, for the better or the worse. In comedies, the protagonist’s luck changes from bad to good, due to their drawing on hidden inner strengths. Drama is the other side of the coin, where things take a turn for the worse and reveal the protagonist’s hidden weaknesses.
Stage 4: Falling action—during this stage, the conflict unravels and the protagonist either wins or loses against the antagonist. This is also where a moment of final suspense might be found, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
Stage 5: Dénouement—also known as resolution, or catastrophe— in drama, brings the events from the end of the falling action stage to the actual closing scene. Conflicts are resolved in a manner that either creates normality and a sense of catharsis for the characters, or release of tension and anxiety for the audience. In comedy, the protagonist is always better off than they were at the beginning of the story. And in tragedy, the protagonist is worse off in the end—hence the alternate title for this stage, catastrophe.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, Freytag’s analysis wasn’t meant for modern drama. For starters, front-loading your story with exposition is usually the kiss of death for your audience’s declining attention span. If exposition is truly needed, it should occur naturally within your story in the smallest fragments possible.
Also, modern storytellers tend to use falling action to raise the stakes of the climax for dramatic impact, having the protagonist fall short of their goal—–encountering their greatest fear of losing something or someone important to them. And when they’re at their lowest point, they’re struck with an epiphany, giving the protagonist the courage to take on the final obstacle, resulting in the classic climax.
And there you have it. Now, sally forth and writeful… and enjoy your weekend.