dramatic composition

Dramatic structure

Dramatic structure refers to the arrangement of the constituent parts of a play or screenplay. It has been analysed by many important writers since Aristotle's Poetics (335 BCE). The 19th-century critic Gustav Freytag is known for his analysis of the dramatic structure of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama.

Freytag’s analysis

According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts, or acts:

  • exposition
  • rising action
  • climax (or turning point)
  • falling action
  • dénouement (comedy) or catastrophe (tragedy)

Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure is sometimes represented by means of a visual aid known as Freytag’s Pyramid.


In the exposition, the background information that is needed to properly understand the story is provided. Such information includes the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, the setting, and so forth, etc. etc.

The exposition ends with the inciting moment, which is the single incident in the story’s action without which there would be no story. The inciting moment sets the remainder of the story in motion beginning with the second act, the rising action.

Rising action

During rising action, the basic conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach their goal. Secondary conflicts can include adversaries of lesser importance than the story’s antagonist, who may work with the antagonist or separately, by and for themselves.

Climax (turning point)

The third act is that of the climax, or turning point, which marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn, and things will begin to go well for him or her. If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.

Falling action

During the falling action, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final

Dénouement or catastrophe or Resolution

The comedy ends with a dénouement (a conclusion) in which the protagonist is better off than at the story’s outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe in which the protagonist is worse off than at the beginning of the narrative.

Although Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure is based on five-act plays, it can be applied (sometimes in a modified manner) to short stories and novels as well.


A specific exposition stage is criticized by Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He states, “exposition itself is part of the whole play, and not simply a fixture to be used at the beginning and then discarded.” According to Egri, the actions of a character reveal who they are, and exposition should come about naturally. The beginning of the play should therefore begin with the initial conflict.

Contemporary dramas increasingly use the fall to increase the relative height of the climax and dramatic impact (melodrama). The protagonist reaches up but falls and succumbs to his doubts, fears, and limitations. Arguably, the negative climax occurs when he has an epiphany and encounters his greatest fear or loses something important. This loss gives him the courage to take on another obstacle. This confrontation becomes the classic climax.

In fairness to Freytag, it should be remembered that his analysis applies not to modern drama but, rather, to ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama, as he clearly indicates in his work.

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