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What Is Dramatic Structure?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dramatic structure is a term describing the rules that govern the flow of a story, which are designed primarily to make stories seem more dramatically satisfying to an audience. There are several approaches to dramatic structure, and they can vary a lot in terms of complexity and popularity. Most approaches are generally focused on the best ways to initially capture an audience’s attention, keep them interested once they’re engaged, and then send them away with a satisfying conclusion of some kind. The word "dramatic" can sometimes suggest that this term would only apply to stories designed for dramatic mediums, such as plays and films, but in reality, the term is also used very often to describe the structuring of novels or short stories, and often the same approaches to story structure can apply without modification to almost any medium.

One of the most common and universal approaches to dramatic structure is called the "three-act structure," which generally breaks a story down into three separate parts, ideal for the act structure of many plays. There are two different primary versions of this approach. In one version, the story’s climax is in the second act, and the final act simply incorporates the finishing moments of the story after the main action is done. For the second version, the third act would include the story’s climax, which would make it longer and more important.

In either case, the three-act structure involves five separate steps towards the overall telling of a story. First, there is the exposition, in which the writer introduces the audience to the key figures in the story and sets up the initial situation which will lead them into the meat of the tale. This is followed by rising action where the heroes first encounter various obstacles, a climax where the heroes eventually reach some kind of turning point, and falling action where the heroes take the necessary actions to achieve their goals. Things conclude with the final phase of the three-act structure, usually called the resolution or denouement, where the writers will generally close off the threads of the story as neatly as they can.

The three-act structure is fairly simplified, and could potentially apply to many different kinds of stories, but sometimes the basic concept of the three-act structure don’t provide enough specific guidance for some writers. As a result, there are many other approaches to dramatic structure which are often built along the basic lines of the three-act structure, but provide more specific advice about how to let a story unfold. This would include things like the Dramatica system, which often incorporates computer software into the story development process, and a system outlined in Christopher Vogler’s book, "A Writer’s Journey," which relies on ideas borrowed from mythologist Joseph Smith regarding the story structure of myths and legends around the world.

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