Chapter 3

Story Structure

Scenes or Acts?

Should you divide your play into acts, or just into scenes? It's really a matter of personal taste, as long as you recognize a few basic principles of play construction and why we have these divisions in the first place.

Virtually all plays, as much as we rail against the way some screenwriters have turned this into a cookie-cutter, divide into what has come to be called three-act structure. Here's where you get to impress your friends with your fancy verbiage:

Just as in screenwriting format, the middle act is the longest. Aristotle (384-322 BCE.), whose Poetics represented his collected observations on dramatic structure and playwriting based on the practice of Greek dramatists, is largely credited for three-act structure and has had long-lasting influence on playwriting. Want to really, really impress your friends? Tell them Aristotle didn't say anything about three Unities.

So what does this three-act structure mean? It means that no matter whether you label the divisions in your script acts or scenes, the arc of a good play will be roughly the same. Logically, though, if you're writing a play that is not meant to have an intermission, it makes sense simply to have scenes, whereas if you expect to have an intermission, put it between two acts. Of course, you could also put an intermission between scenes if you prefer. You have options. You even have options when it comes to structure. Read more about them in Chapter 17.

Write to be Read

One of the terms you'll hear a lot from me is "your reader." But plays are meant to be performed, not read - right? True, but before your play makes it to a stage, it will have to survive a small army of readers. For example, when I was reading for Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre, a play typically had to get through at least two script readers before it reached the head of new play development. If it got through him, it would go either to the literary manager or to the associate artistic director or perhaps to Brustein himself. That's a lot of reads, so it's crucial that you write not just to be performed, but to be read as well.