Instructor: Jason LinebergerShow bio

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

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Dramatic Structure

In this lesson, you"ll learn about the structure of plays. But even if you haven"t seen a play before, you can already get the main point of the lesson by thinking about football. If you watch football on TV, there"s the pre-game show, then the actual game, which is divided into four quarters, then the post-game show where the commentators talk about what just happened. The same structure happens in plays. We just use different names for it, but the idea holds true - we like to structure our entertainment into these specific categories. We want stuff before, during, and after. Want to learn how this works in plays? Keep watching!


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0:01 Dramatic Structure 0:47 The Prologue 1:37 The Acts 2:18 The Scenes 2:54 The Epilogue 3:57 Lesson Summary

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The Prologue

In a football broadcast, they usually have a pre-game show. Commentators come on the screen and let you know what to expect from the game you"re about to watch. Plays that have a prologue do the same thing. The prologue is the opening segment that introduces the rest of the play. Let"s look at a famous example.

Shakespeare"s famous play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet opens with 14 lines that set the scene. The first two lines are, "Two households, both alike in dignity,/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene," and these tell the audience that the play will be about two families of equal wealth who live in the city of Verona. Just like the pregame show, the prologue tells the audience what they should expect in the play.

The Acts

Football games are divided into quarters and, in the same way, plays are divided into acts. Each act is a major section of the play. Acts might be just ten minutes long, or they might be over an hour long.

Shakespeare usually wrote his plays in five acts, and each act builds on the ones before it to advance the story. One-act plays are short plays that only need one section to tell their story. Typically, the opening act of the play introduces the characters and the problems they face. The middle acts further complicate the problems, and in the final act of the play, the problem is resolved.

The Scenes

Going back to our football analogy, within each quarter, there are periods of time where the same players are on the field. When the drive ends, for whatever reason, the teams switch from offense to defense and a mostly new set of players take the field. In a play, we call these scenes. Scenes are the sections that make up the acts. You know when scenes change because the set of characters on stage change or the set might change to indicate that the characters are in a new place. Scenes tell small pieces of the overall story.

The Epilogue

In football, the post-game show happens after the game, and the commentators talk about what they learned from how the teams performed. In a play, this is called an epilogue. Epilogues are the part of a play that happens at the end after the main problem has been solved.

Going back to Romeo and Juliet - spoiler alert - the main characters die in the end and the warring families get back together. Then the Prince, a minor character, tells the audience that some of the crimes that took place will be forgiven and others will be punished for their crimes. He ends the play by saying, "For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo." In other words, he concludes the play by saying, "You just watched the saddest play ever." Often the epilogue is delivered by a minor character or a narrator, but in all cases it"s done after the main problem has been solved, and it"s just extra information for the audience to help wrap things up.

Lesson Summary

There are four major parts to dramatic structure. Plays can begin with a prologue, the part of the play where the audience learns about what is about to happen on stage. Then comes the acts. Plays can be as short as one act or can have five or more acts. Each act is broken into scenes, and these scenes are little parts of the big story that"s being told. Scenes change when the set of characters on stage change or their location changes. Finally, plays can end with an epilogue, which is a speech usually given by a narrator or minor character that happens after the main problem in the play has been solved. The epilogue serves to wrap up any loose ends from the plot.

Learning Outcomes

The main points of this lesson on dramatic structure could prepare you to:

Recognize the purpose of a prologue and epilogue Determine what happens during the opening, middle and final acts of a play Compare acts with scenes