The History Of Drama Theory

Many writers suffer from hit and miss syndrome with their screenplays. Sometimes their scripts work, sometimes they don’t. Many writers realize something is amiss in their screenplays, but can’t pinpoint the exact source of the problem.

Screenwriting is one of the most difficult literary disciplines due to it’s highly stylized, streamlined and lean nature. You need to train and write constantly. You don’t call yourself a concert pianist after learning to play the chopsticks, so why call yourself a professional screenwriter after finishing your first few scripts? Brutal I know, but it’s for our collective good if our status as storytellers is going to improve.

Where Did Stories Begin?

The origins of story predate speech and writing, beginning about 40000 years ago in Africa. Pretty much from the beginning of humanity. Consider the hunters returning from a fresh kill wanting to re-enact their hunt or being chased by a stegosaurus. Storytelling was a time for socialization and communication prior to the written and spoken word. Language was as sophisticated as monosyllabic grunts.

The first stage of re-enactment was mimesis (imitation) of an experience, to vicariously relive the drama in the present for the benefit of the audience. The joy of this technique is that relies on visual storytelling, just like cinema.

Storytelling through spoken word was utilized by tribes to pass stories down to future generations. The Australian Aborigines still largely tell their stories verbally with some visual accompaniment (drawings and paintings) as rites of passage, to educate, to teach morality and, to entertain. Written word doesn’t feature in their traditional storytelling framework.

Modern Drama

Modern story theory originated  in Ancient Greece, in a tome called Aristotle’s Poetics 3000 years ago. Here it is claimed that the underlying mechanics of all stories are identical; a series of events unfold over a period of time (a continuum). He also stated that all stories have a beginning (prologue), middle (episode, parados and stasimon) and an end (exode). This is particularly true in the Western world. Stories in other cultures may be more vertical than linear because they delve deeper into an event or character. A time line exists nonetheless.

Aristotle also claimed that soon after the beginning, a monumental event occurs (upset of the natural world, inciting incident). These events worsen to a climax and are followed by a resolution. Sound familiar? The old equilibrium is either returned or a new one is established. In Ancient Greece, these events were often depicted by tragic revelations or actions. Aristotle also spoke of plot, dialogue, music, theme and spectacle as vital components of story. He also spoke of the “peripetoia” (literally adventure) depicted by plot reversals and complications. These tenets underpin all stories today.

Ancient Greek dramas typically ran for ninety minutes without intermission because it was recognized as a natural time frame to tell a story. Notice the uncanny similarities to Hollywood today? Spectacle is now 3D, but everything else remains unchanged.

Flashforward to 16th century Spain. Theatre had evolved into sagas lasting a few hours. Intermissions were a necessity for the audience to alleviate mental and physical fatigue. England and Central Europe followed suit. Joseph Campbell, another story theorist agrees with the 90 minute story length. He believed that all stories are linked to the heart.

Plays were broken down to three acts. It is noteworthy that the intermissions occurred around one quarter and three quarters into the story and coincided with Aristotle’s peripetoias. In television, this device is called a cliffhanger. It’s only mechanical function is to keep audience sufficiently hooked to come back after the commercial breaks so the timings are shifted. Human curiosity demands a natural conclusion to stories.

Lope De Vega (1562-1635) was a Spanish poet and playwright defined the three acts as follows: Act 1 sets forth the case, Act 2 brings both sides to impossible conflict and Act 3 tricks expectancy (surprises us) and resolves the case. De Vega’s writings on drama theory, much like Aristotle applies to tragedies, comedies, farces and dramas.

Flashforward to Germany 1863 when Gustav Freytag publishes a book called “The Technique Of The Drama”. He expanded Aristotle’s theory of dramatic events occurring along a timeline, by adding the dimension of “tension”, a vital element to maintain audiences interested. The tension rises steadily to a peak and then follows rapidly after act 2. A good story builds dramatic tension to a climax and then quickly releases it during the resolution. This buildup and release of energy sequence is mimicked by nature.

Similarly, Sigmund Freud wrote a book called “The Pleasure Principal”. He similarly states that pleasure is derived from the gradual buildup and rapid release of tension. Therein lies the reason why humanity loves stories so much.

More recently (1985), David Bordwell wrote a book called “Narration in The Fiction Film” and described the key tenets of a film as introduction and setting of characters, explanation of a state of affairs, complicating action, ensuing events, outcome and ending.

In order to create tension, the audience requires a “rooting interest” (hoping a protagonist achieves their goal) and an antagonist creating fear by thwarting them. This is the “conflict”. These opposing forces are necessary to generate a balanced and satisfying story. Rather than defining a story as a series of events, redefine it as series of dependent tensions driven by hope versus fear. It’s also a useful tool in deleting flat scenes in your screenplays.

This story theory forms the basis of the mini-movie method. The series of 8 to 10 tensions and releases in your sequences, eventually building up the entire structure of your screenplay.

Each player must accept the cards life has dealt. They alone must decide how to play them in order to win. — Voltaire

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sergio says:


    Aristotle’s “Poetics” (link to the Perseus Digital Library edition):

    Lope de Vega’s “The New Art of Writing Plays”.

    The name is “Gustav FreYtag”. The year was 1863 (1863 Die Technik des Dramas). You can download his book from here:

    He created the famous Freytag’s pyramid.

    Elisabeth Woodbridge wrote “The Drama, Its Law and Its Technique” (1898), based on Freytag’s theory.

    William T. Price also wrote two very useful books: “The Technique of the Drama”.

    And “The Analysis of Play Construction and Dramatic Principle”.

    Sigmund Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”.

    Paul Gulino’s “Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach” (the basis of the mini-movie method).
    Type “The Sequence Approach” at Google Books.

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