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The Plays the Thing: Part 2 By Dale Griffiths Stamos

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THE PLAY’S THE THING

Part 2: First Draft 
Three Act Structure: Beginning, Middle, and End

By Dale Griffiths Stamos
August 2010

 

Authorlink welcomes award-winning playwright Dale Griffiths Stamos as a regular monthly columnist.

"Three act structure means that all stories have a beginning, middle and end."
—STAMOS

It is likely you have heard that plays (and all fiction, for that matter) are divided into three structural acts. When I say structural, these do not mean actual acts, like in a three act play. Where the curtain falls, or intermissions are placed is another issue (and generally full-length plays today only have two physical acts, anyway). Three act structure means that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. Each of these acts functions in a very particular way.

The beginning, or Act One, often called the setup, usually consists of two key elements: introduction of the protagonist(s), and establishment of the protagonist’s problem. This is where the question of the play is set up. A question that will run the length of the play and only be answered at the end. Will Romeo and Juliet be able to live happily together despite their families’ rivalry? Will Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) learn to let go of his unrealistic dreams? Will Blanche DuBois (Streetcar Named Desire) finally find the peace she craves? It is in Act One we see what the protagonist wants and get our first indications that it won’t be so easy to obtain.

"This goal must not only be something they want, but something they want very badly."
—STAMOS

Act Two is where the protagonist, in pursuit of a solution to their problem, encounters a series of escalating obstacles. The term escalating is important here. Although there will be natural peaks and troughs in the action, each peak must be at a higher level than the one before. This is often called rising action. In this act we must feel like things are getting worse and worse for the protagonist and they must dig within themselves to find ever greater resources to try and accomplish their goal. This goal must not only be something they want, but something they want very badly. In other words, the win/lose factor (what is at stake for them) is very high. Life and death is at stake for Romeo and Juliet. His entire self-worth is at stake for Willy Loman. Sanity is at stake for Blanche DuBois. Even in comedies there is a win/lose factor, something that matters enormously to the character.

Act Three, generally called the resolution, begins with the climax (often called the obligatory scene). This is the scene where the character is faced with a crisis, an intense, explosive confrontation that all the preceding scenes have led up to. In this scene, the protagonist takes final decisive action to deal with their problem. This action may lead to success, it may lead to failure. But it will, one way or the other lead to a conclusion of the problem. Think of the final confrontation (rape scene) between Blanche and Stanley in Streetcar. Stanley even says: “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.” It leads to Blanche losing her grasp on sanity. In Death of a Salesman, it is the final confrontation between Willy and his sons that propels him to commit suicide.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, forced to marry against her will, feigns death and this leads to Romeo’s and then Juliet’s suicide. In terms of proportions, Act One usually takes up a fourth or less of the play, Act Two usually about a half, and Act Three another fourth, although some resolutions are considerably shorter.

"Each act should feel like it leads not only seamlessly, but inevitably to the next one."
—STAMOS

Each act should feel like it leads not only seamlessly, but inevitably to the next one. By the time of the climax, this inevitability will feel like a freight train pounding down the tracks to what can only be one destination. To form this kind of structural integrity, intensity and inexorability is no easy task. But it is what allows an audience to leave a theater feeling their emotional investment in the play has been thoroughly paid off.

About the Author About the Author: Dale Griffiths Stamos is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced and published in the United States and abroad. She has been on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a guest artist at Cal Arts where she taught the workshop, Finding Your Story. For more information, go to www.dalegriffithsstamos.com