The Dramatic Structure

(or the “Deep Structure” as reflected in six key scenes)

Action is at the heart of a story, including a life story. Something happens and we call that “the Plot.” The telling and showing of what happens is most satisfying if it unfolds in a coherent and organized way.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first people in Western culture to write about successful story plots.  In his book Poetics, a study of literary craft and form, he described “plot” as a change in a character’s circumstances from bad to good or from good to bad. Since Aristotle made his pioneering observations of what happens in stories, many other writers also have reflected on the subject. In different ways, they describe a similar pattern—a sequence of events that are connected in a cause-and-effect pattern. 

One highly influential description of the pattern came from Gustav Freytag, a German journalist writing in the 1860’s. In Technique of the Drama, he talked about the deep structure of stories in terms of a pyramid pattern, one with action that rose and fell away from a key turning point. A more contemporary—and more linear—description of this pattern can be found in the writings of Syd Field. In such books as Screenplay and The Screen-writer’s Workbook, Field advised a generation of Hollywood script writers. The following notes employ Field’s terminology, but the “dramatic structure” they describe reflects a tradition dating back to ancient storytellers.

First, a story can be thought of as having three parts: beginning, middle, and end. These parts also can be described as three Acts:

  • Act 1 aims to catch the interest and leads up to the first turnaround scene (“rising action”).
  • Act 2 continues the conflict, with a moment that either subtly or directly turns the action toward a final crisis (“falling action”); near the end of this act is another turnaround scene.
  • Act 3 presents the final crisis and the resolution.

Secondly, this three-act structure can be said to have six key scenes (or Six Big Moments).

THE HOOK: The catalyst, the “call,” the “inciting incident.” Coming early in Act 1 of the story, the “hook” is an incident or event that radically changes the main character’s life; Freytag said it was the moment in the story that “lights the fuse.” It i sets the main character on a course pursuing a significant goal or desire. 

PLOT POINT 1:  This is an incident or an event that turns the action around in another direction. This turning point, found near the end of Act 1, involves the main character and the chief opposing figure or force that prevents the main character from achieving the significant goal or desire.

MIDPOINT:  Something that happens midway through Act 2 in the story that shifts the action in another direction—an incident, episode or event. This may be a big moment or a small one, but it is pivotal moment in the story changing the circumstances of the main character from bad to good or from good to bad.

PLOT POINT 2: Coming near the end of Act 2, another incident or event once again turns the action in different direction. As with Plot Point 1, this turning point involves the main character and the opposing figure or force.

CLIMAX: Near the end of Act 3,a large and final complication concludes the main character’s quest. It brings a dramatic permanent change—either the character achieves the goal or desire or fails to do so.

RESOLUTION: A scene or two at the end of the story that winds up the important details. Typically, the Resolution shows the difference the climactic change makes in the main character’s life. It leaves the reader (or viewer) with the satisfied sense that the conflict seen throughout the story has been resolved, for better or worse.