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Part 2 : Deciding on Your Play’s Structure

1. Begin with a one-act play if you are new to playwriting. Before writing the play, you should have a sense of how you want to structure it. The one-act play runs straight through without any intermissions, and is a good starting point for people new to playwriting. Examples of one-act plays include "The Bond," by Robert Frost and Amy Lowell, and "Gettysburg," by Percy MacKaye. Although the one-act play has the simplest structure, remember that all stories need a narrative arc with exposition, rising tension, and resolution.

  • Because one-act plays lack intermissions, they call for simpler sets and costume changes. Keep your technical needs simple.

2. Don’t limit the length of your one-act play. The one-act structure has nothing to do with the duration of the performance. These plays can vary widely in length, with some productions as short as 10 minutes and others over an hour long.

  • Flash dramas are very short one-act plays that can run from a few seconds up to about 10 minutes long. They’re great for school and community theater performances, as well as competitions specifically for flash theater. See Anna Stillaman's "A Time of Green" for an example of a flash drama.

3. Allow for more complex sets with a two-act play. The two-act play is the most common structure in contemporary theater. Though there’s no rule for how long each act should last, in general, acts run about half an hour in length, giving the audience a break with an intermission between them. The intermission gives the audience time to use the restroom or just relax, think about what’s happened, and discuss the conflict presented in the first act. However, it also lets your crew make heavy changes to set, costume, and makeup. Intermissions usually last about 15 minutes, so keep your crew’s duties reasonable for that amount of time.

  • For examples of two-act plays, see Peter Weiss' "Hölderlin" or Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming."

4. Adjust the plot to fit the two-act structure. The two-act structure changes more than just the amount of time your crew has to make technical adjustments. Because the audience has a break in the middle of the play, you can't treat the story as one flowing narrative. You must structure your story around the intermission to leave the audience tense and wondering at the end of the first act. When they come back from intermission, they should immediately be drawn back into the rising tension of the story.

  • The “inciting incident” should occur about half-way through the first act, after the background exposition.
  • Follow the inciting incident with multiple scenes that raise the audience’s tension — whether dramatic, tragic, or comedic. These scenes should build toward a point of conflict that will end the first act.
  • End the first act just after the highest point of tension in the story to that point. The audience will be left wanting more at intermission, and they’ll come back eager for the second act.
  • Begin the second act at a lower point of tension than where you left off with the first act. You want to ease the audience back into the story and its conflict.
  • Present multiple second-act scenes that raise the stakes in the conflict toward the story’s climax, or the highest point of tension and conflict, just before the end of the play.
  • Relax the audience into the ending with falling action and resolution. Though not all plays need a happy ending, the audience should feel as though the tension you’ve built throughout the play has been released.

5. Pace longer, more complex plots with a three-act structure. If you’re new to playwriting, you may want to start with a one- or two-act play because a full-length, three-act play might keep your audience in its seats for two hours!It takes a lot of experience and skill to put together a production that can captivate an audience for that long, so you might want to set your sights lower at first. However, if the story you want to tell is complex enough, a three-act play might be your best bet. Just like the 2-act play, it allows for major changes to set, costumes, etc. during the intermissions between acts. Each act of the play should achieve its own storytelling goal:

  • Act 1 is the exposition: take your time introducing the characters and background information. Make the audience care about the main character (protagonist) and his or her situation to ensure a strong emotional reaction when things start going wrong. The first act should also introduce the problem that will develop throughout the rest of the play.
  • Act 2 is the complication: the stakes become higher for the protagonist as the problem becomes harder to navigate. One good way to raise the stakes in the second act is to reveal an important piece of background information close to the act’s climax. This revelation should instill doubt in the protagonist’s mind before he or she finds the strength to push through the conflict toward resolution. Act 2 should end despondently, with the protagonist’s plans in shambles.
  • Act 3 is the resolution: the protagonist overcomes the obstacles of the second act and finds a way to reach the play’s conclusion. Note that not all plays have happy endings; the hero may die as part of the resolution, but the audience should learn something from it.
  • What is the “inciting incident” that sets off the main action of the play and leads up to that central conflict?
  • Examples of three-act plays include Honore de Balzac's "Mercadet" and John Galsworthy's "Pigeon: A Fantasy in Three Acts."