Plot & Structure

After studying this section, you should be able to:

• understand the relationship between plot and structure in a drama

• identify some key elements in the structure of the play you are studying

All plays have some kind of storyline or plot. The plot is of central importance to most plays, although there are some plays – particularly some modern drama – where the plot is stripped away to a bare minimum, and the fact that nothing happens is the very point of the play. For example, some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, such as Waiting for Godot, work in this way. At its simplest the plot is the story of the play – what actually happens. Having said that, there is much more to plot than simple ‘storyline’. In most plays, the plot is a highly developed and crafted fundamental aspect of the play.

Creating an Effective Plot

The whole notion of plot, and the way that it develops, is bound up with the way that the play is put together – the way in which it is structured. The creation of an order or pattern needs careful planning, and the dramatist needs to consider a number of factors.

Generally speaking, an effective plot should:

• maintain the interest of the audience from beginning to end

• move the action on from one episode to the next

• arouse the interest of the audience in character and situation

• create high points, climaxes or moments of crisis at intervals

• build up dramatic tension, and create expectation and surprise.

Key Elements in the Structure of a Play

Although every play is different, very often the structure of a play follows a similar pattern, which consists of a number of elements or stages:

1. Exposition: this opens the play and often introduces the main characters and provides background information.

2. Dramatic incitement: the incident that provides the starting point for the main action of the play.

3. Complication: this usually forms the main action of the play, in which the characters respond to the dramatic incitement and other developments that stem from it.

4. Crisis: the climax of the play.

5. Resolution: this is the final section of the play, where things are worked out and some kind of conclusion is arrived at.

Applying Structural Elements to a Play

Here is how this structure applies to the eighteenth-century play, The Rivals, by Richard Sheridan. Sheridan’s play, because of the complexities and confusions of the plot, may seem to have no structure at all on first reading (or viewing). However, a closer study of it reveals that it is very carefully structured indeed:

1. Exposition: the opening scene is a classic example of an exposition. Two servants, Fag and Thomas, through their conversation, provide the audience with all the information that they need to follow the action. We are introduced to the stories of the two pairs of lovers (Jack and Lydia and Faulkland and Julia), whose fortunes run parallel to each other throughout the play and reach their resolution in the final scene.

2. Dramatic incitement: we are made aware of this through the exposition, where we are told that Jack Absolute is wooing the beautiful Lydia Languish by pretending to be a character called Ensign Beverley.

3. Complication: there are many complications and twists to the plot. Jack’s father, Sir Anthony, arranges for his son to marry a young woman (who happens to be Lydia), Lydia’s aunt forbids her to see Ensign Beverley (although she would be happy if she knew he was, in fact, Sir Anthony’s son), and many more complications develop.

4. Crisis: the main crisis comes when Lydia finds out who her beloved Ensign Beverley really is – thus shattering her notions of a romantic elopement – and she refuses to have any more to do with him.

5. Resolution: the final scene brings the reconciliation of Jack and Lydia. Other strands of the plot that created problems and complications for most of the other characters are also resolved.


In addition to the main plot involving Lydia and Jack, Sheridan makes use of various sub-plots (the most obvious being the action involving Julia and Faulkland, another pair of lovers for whom the course of love does not run smoothly). Sub-plots are secondary plots, sometimes separate from the main action but often linked to it in some way. Sub-plots tend to echo themes explored by the main plot, or shed more light on them. They contribute to the interest of the play, but do not detract from the main plot.

Look at the play you are studying and see if you can identify any subplots that run alongside the main plot, but are separate to it.


The pace of the action is also integral to the idea of plot and structure. Varying the pace at which the plot unfolds is another factor in maintaining the interest of the audience. Variations in the lengths of scenes, and in mood, setting and action, can all influence a play’s dramatic effectiveness.



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