NVCC Logo -- Go to NVCC's Home Page

Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last revision date: January 4, 2008



Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

Aristotle's Six Parts of a Tragedy and how they relate to the drama today

The elements of plot

Types of plots

Some devices of plot



Aristotle's Six Parts of a Tragedy (click here for a slide presentation about the six parts of a play -- with sound -- requires a relatively fast connection and an internet sound plug-in installed -- give it a try...)

1. Plot
2. Character
3. Thought (theme, idea)
4. Diction (Language)
5. Music (sound)
6. Spectacle


1. Plot -- the arrangement of the parts--
"the arrangement of events or the selection and order of scenes in a play. (155)"

Click for PLOT Handout

Plot is different from the story -- the story is WHAT happens; the plot is HOW it happens.
"A story is a full account of an event or series of events, usually in chronological order; a plot is a selection and arrangement of scenes.. "

Aristotle, in The Poetics, said that plot is the soul of tragedy: it holds story together contains the incidents in the play, produces tragic effects, has the most tragic element (reversals, discoveries).

{Top of Page}

Elements of Plot:

Rising Action

1. Exposition

Everything the audience needs to know to understand the play. [Can occur throughout the play...]

What is the "antecedent action" (everything that has happened before the play begins)? and how is it revealed?

What is the "point of attack" -- (where does the play begin in relation to the story?) Is it an early or late point of attack? (W/G discuss the late point of attack in climactic dramatic structure...)

Go to the Oedipus plot sheet to see an example of a brilliantly-constructed plot (which is the play Aristotle based his ideas on).

2. Conflict
-- the clash of opposing forces:
man vs. self, vs. man, vs. environment, vs. natural forces, vs. group, vs. God, or group vs. group.

"Inciting incident" (or "initiating incident"): the event that occurs in the play to begin the conflict. The inciting/initiating incident of the play must occur within the play itself. The inciting/initiating incident of Oedipus Rex  cannot, therefore, be Oedipus's killing of Laius or the plague, because both of those have already happened -- they are part of the antecedent action -- before the play actually begins.

"Complications and obstacles" --

Discoveries, reversals (peripety)

Sub-plots / parallel plots -- major and minor conflicts

{Top of Page}


3. Climax -- the point at which one or the other of the forces is favored; the point at which events must turn in one direction or another. Not necessarily the "high point"

Falling Action

4. Resolution / Denouement -- whatever comes after the climax.

Not always resolved satisfactorily:  the "deus ex machina"::  -- "god of the machine" -- a contrived or unrealistic or unbelievable ending / resolution.

{Top of Page}


Three Types of Plots Climactic, Episodic, Non-sequitur

(From Edwin Wilson, The Theater Experience, 7th edition, 292) General characteristics:
[W/G discuss these distinctions in some detail and they include their own chart ...]

Climactic Episodic Non-sequitur
Late point of attack (background info comes primarily from exposition Short span of time (Oedipus -- only the time of the play -- Ghosts, Phaedra) Early point of attack (in Shakespeare's plays, we need to know very little that has happened before the play begins--most of what is important happens during the play itself)

Theatre of the Absurd -- not a unified school or theory

Beckett, Ionesco

Limited number of long segments (Greek -- 5 episodes separated by choral odes)

Neoclassical -- 5 acts Now -- 2 acts

Longer period of time sometimes years (Lear, Caucasian Chalk Circle, R&J, Hamlet)

Many short, fragmented scenes-- tries to grasp various facets of man

Inconsistency, meaninglessness (absurdity)

form and content both express absurdity

Restricted locale -- usually one room or place May range over entire city or many countries (Othello--from Cyprus to Venice) verbal nonsense

Limited number of characters --

6 - 8

Many characters -- dozens in Shakespeare's plays Existential characters -- have little background, no clear causes for actions
Causal structure -- linear -- few subplots or counter plots

Many threads of action

parallel plots, comic relief, subplots, etc.

juxtaposed scenes

Non-traditional structure
Action is causal

Not necessarily causal

complicated web of causes

Causality minimized
Compressed Expansion Chaos


These two (climactic and episodic) can be combined: (Restoration, Chekhov, Death of a Salesman).

{Top of Page}

Other Dramatic Structures:

Avante-Garde and Experimental
Segments and Tableaux

{Top of Page}

Important terms:

exposition, conflict, climax, resolution / denouement

rising action, falling action

antecedent action, point-of-attack

inciting (or initiating) incident

peripetia, deus ex machina


To take a short study quiz, click here...

Next Section: The Character in the play.



This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2008

Last revision date: January 4, 2008