Structure of Plays
THE PLAYWRITING SEMINARS > STRUCTURE >
-- Ntozake Shange
Available Now: PLAYWRITING SEMINARS 2.0
The revised and expanded paperback and e-book editions.
Here's the full Table of Contents and ordering link for the new editions.
The new editions include 10 new diagrams to help in understanding dramatic structure.
The concept of dual or twin plots is one of the core understandings of Playwriting Seminars 2.0 and was first suggested by the great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley. This insight has a long pedigree, but the real proof of the concept is in the practice of playwriting: It is nearly impossible to find produced plays by contemporary playwrights who don’t use this dual plot structure.
These twins (or pairs) are called suspense and emotional plots in this Handbook since the terms capture the key differences between them, but what they are named matters far less than the impact they have on contemporary playwriting. Why playwrights use this dual plot structure may owe much more to the way human beings have always told lasting stories than to theoretical understandings. Demonstrating this key part of the playwright’s craft is one of the goals of the new edition of Playwriting Seminars. While it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge for those who make strict distinctions between so-called "high" and "low" art, this dual plot structure crosses media from theatre to film and genre novels, showing up in such seemingly dissimilar works as Hamlet and The Hunger Games. Plot structure is essential -- the desire for that and why people respond to it is probably built into our DNA -- but what is created on top of that plot structure out of characters and story ultimately determines the way audiences and readers will respond.
Shape of a Two-Act Play
The diagram above is a visual approximation of the typical structure of two-act plays, showing the sequence of the key parts. While comedies follow a similar structure, the diagram reflects the kinds of serious plays most contemporary playwrights create (those “dramedys” discussed in Chapter 17 of the new edition). If you’ve found that pure comedy with at most only a slight dash of melancholy is your style, keep in mind that in place of rising tension as the play progresses, the level of laughter and comic complications intensifies, ideally reaching its highest point at the climax.
A play is a construction of parts and the shape or structure of a play shares equal billing with the story you're telling. As the old song says, it's like a horse and carriage: You can't have one –.
Well, you can have one without the other, but odds are you won't be able to hold an audience for more than those first 15 or 20 minutes. And that’s a generous assessment of the patience of audiences. If structure strikes you as a pointless exercise, one-act plays might be more to your liking. Keep them under 10 minutes and you can get away with almost anything (see Chapter 38 on Writing One-Acts). There are even playwriting competitions for one-acts.
The envelope can be pushed a considerable distance with subjects, but audiences and literary managers alike are usually less willing to be adventuresome with structure. You can play with structure as long as you also provide a way for the audience to have a general idea of where they are in the story. If they loose the thread of the story completely, then you’ve lost them completely.
Best Practice: The more experimental the structure, the more you'll need to be responsible for producing the play.
Much as it may feel good to blame the audience for being too conservative, it’s never the audience’s fault if they can’t follow the play because of its complicated and unusual structure. That structural invention puts an added burden on you and the play to find those specialized audiences that can understand it. And keep in mind that this unusual and complicated structure you’ve invented may make much more sense in the script than it will to audiences in performance.
Part Two on Structure focuses on the two-act (full-length) play since that’s the form most playwrights use today. The only significant difference when moving to a three-act play is that the script – and thus its running time in performance – is usually longer. At the opposite extreme are playwrights who prefer constructing a play as one long continuous act, the equivalent of a two-act play without an intermission. In either of these three alternatives, the internal structure of the resulting plays remains essentially the same.