Dramatic structure

The term "dramatic structure" refers to the parts into which a short story, a novel, a play, a screenplay, or a narrative poem can be divided.

Aristotle divided drama into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps equally influential to writers and literary critics alike has been the analysis of dramatic structure of Gustav Freytag.

In more recent times, noted Hollywood screenwriter Syd Field has elaborated his acclaimed 'three act structure'.


Freytag's analysis

Missing image
Freytag's pyramid

Freytag is known for his analysis of the structure of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts, or acts: exposition; rising action; climax (or turning point); falling action; and (depending upon whether the drama is a comedy or a tragedy) either a denouement or a catastrophe. (A comedy is a drama in which the protagonist, or main character, is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning; a tragedy is the opposite.)

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

Exposition (including inciting moment)

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

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 the 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 his or her 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 transpire, 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 may contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

Denouement or catastrophe

The comedy ends with a denouement in which the protagonist is better off than he or she was at the story's outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe in which the protagonist is worse off than he or she was 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.

Example of Freytag's analysis

Here is the dramatic structure of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz according to Freytag's analysis.


The protagonist, Dorothy Gale, is introduced, and the audience meets her Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and their three farmhands. The antagonist, Mrs. Gulch, arrives to seize Dorothy's dog, Toto, to take him to the authorities to be euthanized.

Inciting moment

Distraught, Dorothy runs away from home.

Rising action

Dorothy encounters a circus performer, who encourages her to return home. As she nears her farm, she is joined by Toto, who has escaped from Mrs. Gulch, but they are too late to join Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the farmhands inside the storm cellar, where they have sought refuge from an approaching tornado. Dorothy carries Toto into the family's house, where she is struck in the head by a shutter that becomes detached from the house because of the tornado. The injured girl loses consciousness, to awaken in the land of Oz.

Glinda, the Good Witch, recommends that she see the Wizard of Oz, in the Emerald City, who can help her return to her home in Kansas. She wears a pair of ruby slippers that belonged to the Wicked Witch of the East, upon whom her house landed when the tornado set it down in the land of the diminutive Munchkins.

Along the way, as she follows a yellow brick road, she encounters traveling companions in the form of a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman, and a Cowardly Lion. Surviving attacks by the Wicked Witch of the West, the sister of the slain witch, who wants to recover the ruby slippers, Dorothy arrives in the Emerald City, with her companions. However, the Wizard refuses to help Dorothy or her friends unless she returns to the Emerald City with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy and her companions are attacked by the Witch's army of flying monkeys, and Dorothy and Toto are borne to her castle. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion follow, rescuing Dorothy.

Climax (turning point)

As they seek to escape the Witch's castle, the antagonist confronts her fleeing prisoner and her friends, and Dorothy pitches a pail of water on the Witch, melting her.

Falling action

Armed with the Witch's broomstick, Dorothy returns to the Emerald City, accompanied by her companions. However, it is soon apparent that the Wizard is a fraud. He cannot work magic. However, he confers a diploma upon the Scarecrow, bestows a medal of courage upon the Cowardly Lion, and presents the Tin Woodman with a ticking clock, so that they each have that which they, respectively, have lacked: a brain, courage, and a heart. To transport Dorothy back home to Kansas, he inflates a balloon with hot air (the moment of final suspense), but the balloon leaves before Dorothy can join him in the basket, leaving her stranded in Oz.


A comedy, The Wizard of Oz ends with the appearance of Glinda, who advises Dorothy that she can return home simply by clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together three times and repeating "There’s no place like home."

After bidding farewell to her friends, she does so, awakening in her own bed, surrounded by Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, the three farmhands, and the circus performer. Her adventures in Oz were nothing more than a dream that helped her to realize that "There’s no place like home" and that, if happiness isn’t in one’s own backyard it is unlikely to be anywhere else, including "somewhere over the rainbow."


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