Dramaturgy – The Craft of Composing Story

an empty stage room, the setting for dramaturgy

Dramaturgy means “the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition”.

In other words, everything to do with the story except the words with which it is told. If your story is about two people in a room, dramaturgy tells you who these people are and what happens in the room. In terms of storytelling process, the term dramaturgy refers to the planning or outlining stage rather than the execution or writing.

The study of dramaturgy has produced a nomenclature that is used by dramaturges, script consultants, story advisors, editors and publishers, producers and filmmakers, as well as authors. Some terms may seem more familiar than others, and often their definitions are not entirely agreed upon.

A list of dramaturgical terms does not constitute a checklist of scene types required in a story. You may find it helpful to tag your scenes with some of the appropriate terms below. 

Kick-Off Event – The opening scene.

Inciting Incident – The event that sets off a chain reaction that constitutes the storyline of a particular character or the plot of the story.

Advice/Helpful Item – Classically, the moment the hero receives some item or wisdom which will become necessary to achieve the quest.

Lock-in – The point in the narrative after which the audience is emotionally committed to the story.

Plot Point – In the stricter sense, the points in the narrative that mark the transition from one act into the next.

Pinch Point – In the stricter sense and in a three act story, a minor turning point in the plot usually placed in the middle between the beginning of act 2 and the midpoint and the midpoint and the end of act two.

Complication – An obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.

Midpoint – The pivotal point in the centre of the narrative that divides the story into two symmetrical halves.

Campfire Scene – A type of scene, usually placed in the second half of the narrative, which marks a moment of calm before the approaching storm of the climax. The term refers ironically to a hackneyed style of scene in many US-westerns.

Reveal – The moment when some relevant backstory information is revealed to the audience, changing their perception of the story.

Approaching Crisis – The run-up to the denouement.

Crisis – A decisive moment of choice or confrontation for the protagonist. While this may occur very close to the climax, it is not the climax itself, for here the choice is made, whereas at the climax the outcome of that choice is shown.

Revelation – The moment when the audience, and often also a character, understands a fundamental point about the theme of the story.

Climax – The final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic forces in the story.

Return Home – Classically, after the final confrontation the hero must yet journey home, to the “ordinary world” shown at the beginning of the narrative.

Reaction at Home – Classically, the hero returns home after the adventure as a changed person, who may or may not be welcomed back into the fold.

Narrative Frame – When the story introduces a narrator figure who tells the bulk of the story to another character or to the audience, then one speaks of a narrative frame. Usually this technique involves beginning the story with a scene in which the situation of the telling of the bulk of the story is established, and story ends with a final scene back in the narrative frame.

Collage – similar to a montage, this is a series of scene vignettes that are spliced together in order to economically get across some story information, often to indicate the passage of time.

Dream – In a dream sequence, the audience becomes privy to a character’s dreams or desires. Often, a dream is used by storytellers to offer the audience indirect clues or hints about the character in question.

Exposition – Story information that is conveyed to the audience, for instance through dialogue. Ideally, no scene should be recognized as exposition, because then it has failed dramatically.

Love Scene – The depiction of the union of two (or conceivably more) characters, which dramatically speaking only has a raison d’être if a change in their relationship ensues.

Resolution – The end outcome of the story, the mirror image of the ordinary world established at the beginning of the narrative, now incorporating the changes to this world and/or the main characters. The resolution is effectively the synthesis of the thesis of act 1 merged with the antithesis of act 2.

Red Herring – An item of information placed into the story to deliberately mislead the audience into believing something about the plot or a character which will be revealed to be untrue. A device used mainly in mystery and crime stories.

Deliberation – A narrative consists effectively of an alternation between characters carrying out actions as a result of finding themselves in certain predicaments, only to find themselves in the next predicament. So there is a constant ebb and flow of action and deliberation of how to deal with the consequence of the prior action.

Set-up – Foreshadowing is one of the most powerful ways to create an emotional effect in the audience. Any item of story information that is strategically dropped by the author to be initially not recognized for its significance (which will be revealed later in the narrative) is a set-up.

Pay-off – When a set-up, that is an act of foreshadowing, returns into the minds of the audience at a particular juncture of the plot, it is “paid off”. To be formally perfect, any particular pay-off takes place in the second half of the narrative in a corresponding position to the set-up in the first half.

Backstory – A scene that relates or depicts what happened in a time before the beginning of the main action of the story. The past that the characters look back on. Some item of backstory information is almost always relevant to the story proper, and it is always a challenge for authors to convey such information elegantly to the audience.

Theme – Some authors like to articulate the theme they have determined by putting it into the mouths of one of their characters. So their might be a scene which has the function of expressing explicitly what the author feels the main theme of the story to be.

This list of dramaturgical terms is by no means exhaustive, which is why in the Beemgee tool you can add your own terms to the list and assign them to your plot events.

Photo by Cristiano Remo on Flickr

Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Scene Types

Ready to get dramaturgical? If you’re not in the tool already, try it here:


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