Three-Act Structure in Play Writing

Thursday, June 17, 2010
Frank Capra said, "I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries."

For me, I would hope the tears came because the theme of the play resonated with the audience and not because my drama was dreadful.

The idea of watching a troupe of actors bring my words to life on stage intrigues me. As a high school drama director, finding a quality play that makes a statement and an impact on the audience is important....and difficult. I've tinkered with the dramatic form before, and I've even contemplated adapting a favorite novel for the stage.

But where does a fledgling playwright (like me) begin?

In minimalist form, a play builds around a three-act structure. This doesn't mean a play literally has three acts. Instead, three elements of storytelling have to exist.
  1. The two "C's" of drama occur in Act 1. Characters are presented to the audience and the conflict is brought to the forefront.
  2. Action escalates in Act 2. Characters take necessary means to get what they want.
  3. Success or failure happens in Act 3. Do the characters achieve their goals? Do they get what they are striving for or do they fall flat?

Once a writer outlines the three-act structure, it's time to develop characters, establish a setting and create dialogue that provokes action. Test dialogue validity and pacing by listening to others read your script aloud. You may be surprised at what's missing from the play package! Listening will help you tighten the dialogue and story structure.

Within a play, the "show, don't tell" theory is so important. And since the action plays out on stage, the visual image of your words are illustrated through every move an actor makes.

If playwrights incorporate all these elements into a 20-minute play or a 2-hour drama, they hopefully will have an intense or comedic story that makes a dramatic impact on the audience.

by LuAnn Schindler. Follow LuAnn on Twitter - or visit her website .


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