The Element of Structure in How Plays Work: It Is All About Time

The shape or structure of a play is equal to the story, and without the organization of the narrative into space and time, the meaning will be lost.  In David Edgar’s book, How Plays Work, he insightfully addresses the importance of structure and reveals why the plot is expressed through two structural categories:  Plays that are written in linear time and those who disrupt it.  While Edgar does not shift away from Aristotle’s belief that plot is paramount, and it must be composed of a beginning, middle and end, he does relay some varied approaches with the utilization of time and space in a refreshing and insightful way.


Plays that are written in linear time do not necessarily mean that the writer is progressing from one action to another in a sequence of organized steps.  Edgar uses Oedipus as a great example of a story that uses non-chronological order, but “covers.”  According to Edgar, “Oedipus is an example of a play that is structured in real time.  His stage action is “linear.”  History emerges in bits and pieces as Oedipus discovers his identity and crimes, and all of this is revealed in non-chronological order.  For example, the beginning of the play, Oedipus, the king of Thebes wants to know how to end the plague that has come upon Thebes.  He is looking for a cure and sends his brother-in-law, Creon to the House of Apollo for some answers.  There is light at the end of the tunnel (or so it seems)!  Once the killer of the previous king, Laius, is found, the plague will be lifted.  Oedipus is on a mission to find the murderer and banish him forever.  “ Whoever among you knows the man wit was who murdered Laius, son of Labdacus, I order him to reveal it all to me.  And if the murderer’s afraid, I tell him to avoid the danger of the major charge by speaking out against himself.”

Irony plays a huge roll here, for the murder is Oedipus himself.  So, chronologically the murder has already happened, but Sophocles creates conflict by revealing Oedipus’ identity after the audience has already been made aware that he is the assassin.

By writing non-chronologically the author reveals present information in a powerful and objective way.  When writing s linear, a story will begin at point A and follow a time-progression that will take the characters to point B.  Edgar says, “There are plays which operate in a single time but move from place to place, with only the necessary movement of characters from A to B interrupting the continuous flow.”  Some plays operate in a single time cycle and only in one place, and this enlarges Aristotle’s ruling about time and place by increasing the play’s time beyond real time.  In other words, the time is both “defined” and “confined,” as in an evening or a single day.

It was very interesting to find that Arthur Miller’s original title for his famed play Death of a Salesman was, The Inside of His Head.  Taking into account the definition of “disrupted time,” which Edgar claims, “Is most developed in cinema,” and knowing that the plays action revolves around the protagonist (Willy Loman) sorting out so many unfulfilled dreams and failed realities, makes perfect sense.

Miller has taken a cinematic device and reminted it to demonstrate how it is not the past but our memory that informs our actions in the hear-and-now.  By making his ‘flashbacks’ a dramatization of a character’s present thought processes, Miller has made his mechanism authorially invisible as it’s possible for a non-naturalistic device to be.”

It is easy to see why non-linear structural forms work so well in screenplays.  The use of flashbacks, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, backwards and forwards, etc., all break away from the chronological three-act structure.  According to Edgar, “Cinema’s appropriation of the flashback from the novel gave twentieth-century theatre a whole new structural répertoire.”  Plays (screenplays) with disrupted time, where events happen in a non-chronological order utilize effects like flashbacks and backwards and forwards.  A wonderful example of the use of flashbacks is seen in the film, Groundhog Day.


Since no one component alone builds a story, the utilization of open and closed structural elements that deal with time and space can broaden a writer’s options and bring greater depth to a story.  Edgar points out that there are some difficulties with real time.  One of those challenges is that, “You can’t avoid the naturalistic inconveniences of real life.”  By stretching time and place—“changing locations within or around a house or even a town reduces the impact of small changes in a single set, but opens up much greater opportunities for the setting to communicate meaning.”  This kind of structural format actually gets the audience to get involved.  They are able to examine the possibility of alternative plots.  “Moving some or all of the characters into a dramatically different environment and then moving them back again in the structural strategy most connected to a particular genre.”

While rudimentary guidelines still exist for the playwright and screenwriter, there is a lot more variance today.  The one-hero, three-act linear structure appears to be under revision.  Elements of structure have expanded, and what was once taboo, like:  flashbacks, backwards and forwards, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, etc. has disrupted the apple cart and given writers more creative options.


Connecting the dots between every action

I read a great book a few months ago–a technical (don’t freak-out at that word) manual for reading plays, actually.  The book is called, Backwards & Forwards by David Ball.  Even though this is technically guide to play-reading, it is a great source for analyzing and reading scripts.  After all, whether you are a playwright or a screenwriter, we all at some level embrace similar elements of structure and look at the interpretation of such…

Ball takes you from point A to B, connecting the dots in-between… and a play (or screenplay) is ACTION–action that is both connected and progressive.

Let’s think about connected action.  What do I mean by that? 

Let me use an example:  John came home from work tired and hungry, but instead of immediately going to the kitchen to make something to eat, he walked over to the couch, plopped down and turned on the TV.  Not 3 minutes into a Bud-lite commercial John began to snore and shortly thereafter, he was drooling like a Saint Bernard.  While snoozing, John wasn’t thinking about his hunger.  HOWEVER, when John woke up nearly 3 hours later, it was approaching 9 p.m.  He was past the point of being hungry, he was ravenous!  So…

John went into the kitchen, opened up his refrigerator, which had 3-day old pizza (uncovered), a 6-pack of Bud Lite, minus one beer, a jar of pickles, an essentially empty bottle of ketchup, expired slices of American cheese, Cesar salad dressing (no lettuce), and old orange, and a bag of soft apples.  Flustered, John shut the refrigerator door, and walked over to the pantry.  The pantry didn’t have much going on there either.  An empty box of microwave popcorn, 2 more 6-packs of Bud Lite, a can of corn, a can of green beans, an opened box of instant mashed potato’s, a huge bag of Kibble, and a half-opened stale bag of Frito’s.

Now what?  John’s hunger will push him into action.  He’s going to In-N-Out Burger and grab a Double Double, an extra large Coke, and a large fries.

In a play or screenplay, one action deserves another, and good writing connects those dots.  Ball says, “An event without an outcome is not an action.”  Unconnected events in life and on the screen are irrelevant!

So, part of a writer’s writing responsibility is to WEED-OUT unrealistic scenes.

Ball suggests that we look to the thing that happened preceding the action.  In other words, what transpired before John got in his car and drove to In-N-Out Burger?  He calls these TRIGGERS.

When writing a screenplay, it is imperative that ACTIONS evolve out of what happened prior.  These REACTIONS take the story forward.  You need to connect the dots between every ACTION.

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