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3.2: Dissecting the Plot

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    Every play is different and every new playwright is not only developing their voice, but also trying to break the rules. However, human beings have been telling stories since before we ever developed written language. Stories are how histories were passed down, how life lessons were learned, and how we found our place in society. There is a wonderful book called The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall and in the book he talks about how human beings have evolved around story. We wake up and eat breakfast and read stories either on the phone, on the cereal box, or watch them on the television. We then go to school or work and listen to information that if it told in story form we remember more easily. On breaks we see our friends and tell them about the stories of our day. We then go home and watch stories on the television, phone, or read stories. Finally, we go to sleep and dream in stories. Every part of our existence is tied to stories. Religion is just a story large groups of people feel is so important it has become sacred. Because stories are the vehicle of communication with our species and as a theater artist you are a storyteller, it is a good idea to understand how a story is constructed.

    Stories have been around for centuries and throughout that time the structure of storytelling has become solidified. There are always attempts to break the form and some are done quite well, but if you just follow the structure and deliver a strong and well crafted story your audience will be receptive and happy. Each story has essential components and below I will briefly outline them. These elements will be explored in more depth in the playwriting section of the book.

    Essential components of a story:

    • Opening Image
    • Set up / Prologue / Exposition
    • Catalyst or Inciting Incident
    • Debate
    • Decision
    • Fun and Games or New World
    • Midpoint
    • Bad Guys Close In or Tensions Rise
    • All is Lost
    • Dark Night of the Soul
    • Finale
    • Denouement or Resolution
    • Final Image

    Opening Image

    Every single story is about a transformation. Blake Snyder describes this beautifully in his book Save the Cat. He says “Every play is about the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.” Every story is also a hero's journey. We are introduced to a hero who like us is trapped in circumstances they cannot control. Yet this hero has a goal and in order to achieve that goal they will be met with many obstacles. It is watching this character overcome the obstacles that transforms not only the hero but the audience. The opening image is where the story shows us the main character in the beginning or caterpillar stage of their journey. This is important because the opening image and final image are things your audience will remember the most. It is the contrast of these two images that tell the story.


    Every story has to have certain elements in the beginning in order for your audience to understand and follow the plot. In the set up you have to establish the setting or time and location, introduce the main characters, set up the rules of the world, and establish what a normal day is like in the main characters world.

    Catalyst/Inciting Incident

    The inciting incident or catalyst is the thing that happens that causes everything else to happen. This is the event that will introduce the conflict of the story. This can be a character being introduced, an event occuring, or something as small as a letter being dropped off. This is the plot device that disrupts normal life and sets the plot in motion. There is usually a call to action following the catalyst.


    Once the Catalyst or Inciting Incident has occured the Hero contemplates taking the journey to confront the problem. This contemplation is usually a discussion with a friend or mentor, but can also be a soliloquy.


    The Hero does not always make the decision to go on a journey to confront the problem. This is plot point where the decision is made. The Hero either decides to confront the problem and take the journey or the villian/circumstances make the decision for the hero.

    Fun and Games/ New World

    The main character begins the journey to confront the problem and this forces the character to enter a new world. The new world is the antithesis of the previous world and all of the rules from the previous world are broken. The section is called ‘fun and games’ by some writers but this does not necessarily mean that the world the character is entering is fun. The fun comes from the exploration of the world. Your main character is clueless to the rules of this world, as is your audience, and both will discover the world together.


    The midpoint of the play is where the main character has adequately explored the new world and has unlocked a piece of hidden potential. This event usually manifests itself into a ‘false victory’ or ‘false defeat.’ This means that the character has a minor confrontation with a character and through the confrontation learns a new skill. This confrontation can either be a victory or defeat, but it is labeled as ‘false’ because there is much more to learn and the final confrontation is yet to come. Immediately following the midpoint is the intermission.

    Bad Guys Close In/ Tensions Rise

    Following the victory or defeat at the midpoint the Antagonist becomes aware of the hero and adds pressure. If the hero is part of a team, the team begins to struggle and fall apart.

    All is lost

    This is a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist causing the team to fracture and destroys the heroes confidence. This can be the perceived loss of the goal, a character dying, something being lost, etc.

    Dark Night of the Soul

    This is the part of the story where the Hero contemplates giving up. As the Hero decides whether or not to continue, he or she is offered guidance by a sidekick or mentor and through this conversation the hero finally understands the deeper meaning of the theme. At the end of the scene, the hero decides to meet the antagonist in a final confrontation.


    The finale is the strongest point of conflict where the hero and antagonist collide. The more the hero has struggled throughout the journey, the more the audience has anticipated this confrontation, so make sure to capitalize on this by increasing the heroes struggles leading up to this point.


    The climax is the highest point of tension. Tension is created when we are anticipating an event but it has yet to occur. This is the moment where you extend the anticipation of victory or defeat, because once the event occurs it becomes part of the resolution and the audience will begin the process of disengaging from the performance and reconnecting with their lives.

    Denouement / Falling Action / Resolution

    Denouement means to unravel or unknot. The plot has been building tension and tying knots in the audiences stomachs and denouement is where the story receives closure and the knots are untied. In the Denouement the conflict is resolved,the hero is either victorious or fails, life returns to as normal as possible for the characters following the events of the plot, and the audience begins to internalize the themes and knowledge gained from the story. This should not take too long, and do get ‘precious’ or sentimental with the subject matter.

    Closing Image

    This is our final moment or image of the character as the transformed butterfly. This image should be powerful and will be the image your audience will carry with them out of the theater.

    3.2: Dissecting the Plot is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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