Classical story shape

By Timothy Daly

The beginning of a story. Not as clear-cut as it sounds. The job here is not necessarily to ‘start a story’. First, we usually have to introduce a world—and the humans who populate it. The world that we bring into being might be a very ordinary one– a backyard in suburbia, a city, a family grouping for some social ritual such as Christmas.

Let me outline a generic story shape.

  7. TURNING POINT (for good or ill)
  10. ENDING.

I repeat: The above is NOT a strict order. In fact, it’s amazing how fluid each element is. Let’s examine some of these.


The beginning of a story. Not as clear-cut as it sounds. The job here is not necessarily to ‘start a story’. First, we usually have to introduce a world—and the humans who populate it. The world that we bring into being might be a very ordinary one– a backyard in suburbia, a city, a family grouping for some social ritual such as Christmas. That is, it might be something we know. It might be telling an audience, “This world is quite familiar to you. It is really your world.” (In fact, it is not, because the very act of placing it in a theatre space makes it more unreal, more concentrated and allegorical.)

On the other hand, it might be something we’ve never seen before: a place that’s clearly exotic, a man who clearly is not “one of us”. It may be a country that never existed. The past is a bit like that. So is the future.

Try not to be too ordinary, both in the establishing of your world and its social or geographic location. While it’s true that audiences often like seeing their familiar world on stage, given a choice between the suburban living room they just left and Shangri-La, they usually choose the latter.

More important, however, than the social place in which the story will take place is the set of relationship, power systems (who’s in charge), what the atmosphere, emotions, tensions, beliefs and values of the characters who inhabit this world.

Thus, having established the world, what you need to do, as quickly as possible, is to disturb it.


There should probably be an inherent instability in almost any play opening. When you turn to the chapter on “How To Start Your Play”, you’ll notice how many of the suggested options are volatile, unstable things. Stability is hoped for, or assumed by the characters, but the audience assumes and hopes for ‘something to happen’—that is, imminent change.

Another word for change is disturbance. This is often the first moment of excitement and interest for an audience. It’s certainly the first moment of real dramatic interest. The point of a disturbance is that it forces change upon the old world of the play. By ‘old world’, I mean the world you spent a few pages setting up at the start of the play.

Here is a quick list of disturbances that are useful–

  • A new world is visited, often unwillingly (eg The Tempest)
  • A relationship that seemed reasonably ordinary turns out to be odd, even dangerous. (Ionesco’s The Lesson)
  • A visitor from the past returns. (A big favourite of Ibsen: Hedda Gabler, Pillars of Society, The Master Builder)
  • A newcomer arrives in town, in the appartment block.
  • A relationship is in trouble, or simply appears so unstable that explosion is imminent. (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
  • A political threat must be dealt with. (Julies Caesar)
  • A king misunderstands affection between his wife and his best friend, and wrongly concludes that the two are having an affair. (The Winter’s Tale)
  • A ghost has been seen– and worse, has instructions for the man who sees it. (Hamlet)
  • A slightly dotty king comes up with a bizarre plan. (King Lear)
  • A romantic young man falls in love at first sight. (Romeo & Juliet)
  • A real estate office is about to broken into. (Glengarry Glen Ross)

The latter example shows that exactly when a disturbance occurs can vary. Sometimes a disturbance can be delayed. But beware! The longer you delay this first major dramatic event, the more pressure you put on yourself. Action is much easier to write than ‘glorious inaction’, a la Beckett. (Even with Beckett, there is lots of sub-surface action despite an apparently static surface, quite apart from the fact that it’s held together by mesmeric, musical language.) Alternately, you may have to come up with what are essentially magnificent character sketches as David Mamet did in the first act of Glengarry Glen Ross. Act II of that play opens with a burglary having been committed. It’s almost a one-act play in itself. So try and disturb the setting as soon as possible. But there are other possibilities: You can disturb the action–

  • Just before the play starts. The best writers (eg the writer of Hamlet) often begin the play with a disturbance that has happened before the events that are recounted in the play.
  • Years before the play starts. This is the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s method, and useful for all societies and cultures that enjoy guilt as part of their evening’s entertainment. A ‘dark secret’ may haunt the characters. You can often sense this in an Ibsen play. The setting and character relationships look normal, even domestic… but something isn’t quite right. (See Chapter 21, for more on the concept of ‘the guilty secret’)
  •  Through a series of graded disturbances. The pastor in Rosmerholm always avoids going round by the bridge.(“Why? the audience asks.) But today, to the maid’s astonishment, he’s taken that path! Two shocks, and all within a few pages of the play’s starting. Shakespeare does this, also. There are several disturbances in Hamlet: the murder of the king, weeks before the play opens; the appearance of the Ghost; the immense shock (to Hamlet) that not only is this ghost that of his father, but this ghost has a special job which only Hamlet can do. And then there’s the matter of Claudius marrying his mother ‘before the funeral baked meats were cold’ (FIX THIS QUOTE!!!!)
  • Within a few pages of the start of the play. Either the disturbance should happen then, or there should be a sense that “something is going to happen.” Give the audience a reason to keep watching by planting clues and hints that all is not well.


I’m a fan of causality, as long as it’s rich and powerful. ‘Causality’ is the idea that if something happens to disturb the peace in a story, then an action should take placed based upon that disturbance.

Having decided that his wife is unfaithful, Leontes banishes her and sets out to have his treacherous friend killed.

Having fallen in love with Juliet, Romeo will take steps to meet her.

Having let a stranger into his past, the Master Builder will now reap the consequences and the change in all his relationships– troubled wife, ardent disciple, ambitious employee etc.

Early on in your writing you need to practise the narrative logic of
causality. “Because A happened, then so will B, and C.”

There are problems with causality, however. They include–

  • The reaction being too simple and obvious.
  • It happening way too slowly. (I’ve read writers’ work where the logical ‘next step’ to a disturbance doesn’t start until after interval– assuming the audience will hang around that long.)
  • Not enough story strands being woven. Occasionally, you hear criticisms of “linearity” in writing. Without entering the complex argument at this point of the book, I will say that all play writing and performance is linear, because the moments of a play are experienced by the audience over time. Time is a sequential, linear phenomenon. This is not to say that the play’s meanings are received in this manner. Personally, I don’t much use the word ‘linear’. I prefer the even uglier word, “multilinear”, because it’s a truer indication of how many strands a rich play sets loose. A hundred strands or threads can be operating in any half-decent play. Chapter 20 will go into more detail on this.

So, what is a major action? Put simply, it is the action which dominates a play. But there are many types of actions. To understand this, you need to understand what ‘plot’ is. In its most basic meaning, ‘plot’ is that exact sequence and order of events that drive a story to its rightful and necessary conclusion. After the event, it all seems clear. But for writers involved in plot-making, the creation of a rich plot involves widening the conception of plot as much as possible. Thus–


  • What a character does.
  • What a character wants to do.
  • What a character wants to happen.
  • What a character wants not to happen.
  • What a character fears will happen.
  • What a character is working to make happen.
  • What a character is working to avoid happening.
  • What a character chooses to do.
  • What a character chooses not to do.
  • What a character spends time planning.

All these may constitute the first major action of your story. You will notice one thing about the above list, however. They are all quite active traits. Usually a central agent (hero, protagonist, central character) gets out of his chair, uses effort and makes things happen. That is why I call these type of actions ‘active’ traits. A character is making doing things, driving events, or trying to.

But this is not all. Plot is also–

  • What happens to a character.
  • What almost happens to a character.
  • What is about to happen to a character.
  • What should have happened to a character.
  • What a character wants to happen to him or her.

But there is a third area of plot which may constitute the first major action. Plot can also be–

  • What happens to a relationship
  • What happens within a relationship.
  • What effect the relationship has on others.

Thus, when a character falls in love with another, that is plot (or a part of it). A couple falling in love may be the first major action of the play. When a character falls out of love with another, that is plot. When characters are growing closer to each other, or growing apart, that too is plot. Remember, however, that it’s usually not enough for two characters to say “I love you”, or look lovingly into each other’s eyes. They need a joint action. For example, they may be practising their dancing—but the true dance is that of courtship and love. There is an inner action (‘getting to that place of deep connection called love’) to match the outer action (that is, ‘practising for the dance contest’) The intertwining and tension between these two actions creates what we call ‘plot.’

You can often find what your major action is by completing a sentence that begins with “To”. Thus, major action might be any of the following–

  • Single-mindedly pursuing an objective, whether good or bad. (Richard III) (“To win the crown”.)
  • The drive to find out the truth as to what happened. (Oedipus Rex) (“To search out the truth.”)
  • The need to destroy a person. (Othello) (“To physically or spiritually destroy Othello.”)
  • Preparing for an action, such as a robbery. (American Buffalo) (“To carry the robbery out successfully.”)
  • Waiting fruitlessly for someone who never appears. (Waiting For Godot) (“To wait for a man called Godot.”) In this play, the marvellous non-actions and ‘things to do while we wait’ are a triumph of dramatic and linguistic invention.

When a group is involved, then the major action is more diffused.

  • Friends/family get together after a period of separation. Various agendas, private grudges may be pursued. (Hotel Sorrento, Absent Friends) (“To carry out the reunion successfully, against all the odds.”)

It’s worth mentioning at this point that a great play is usually the result of a wonderful and almost unbearable tension between the literal, forward-moving drive of the main action (To kill the king, wait for Godot etc) and the ‘sideways pull’ of such things as sub-plot, comic relief, character insights, asides, lazzi and other comic by-play etc.) To put it another way, the true movement of a play occurs when overwhelming forward momentum meets irresistible lateral (sideways) diversion.

While I’m on the subject of plot and action, let me continue to digress for a moment, and explain how easy a major action is to think up. It’s all a question of the “W”‘s.


It’s curious how so many major actions in both plays and films are based on words starting with W. Even in smaller structural units like the play scene or the movie sequence, the “W” words are often useful.

Here are some examples, with the movie or play that illustrates this.


  • When will the bomb go off? (The movie Speed)
  • When will the blackmailing letter arrive? (Ibsen’s A Doll’s House)
  • When will it happen? (The assassination scene in Julius Caesar.)
  • When will Joseph be found out for the rogue that he is? (School for Scandal)


  • Why did that boy blind six horses? (Equus)
  • Why did she come back? (Pillars of Society, The Master Builder)


  • Where is the hidden secret/treasure? (More useful for films than plays, as “the search for the material object” is more central to what, in my view, are the crucial paradigms of film. That is, if theatre uses ‘time’ and ‘space’ as its main media for story-telling, the equivalent co-ordinates for film are ‘time’ and ‘space’. It’s why the idea of ‘locations’ are so crucial for film writing.)


  • Who murdered the dead man/woman in the library/vicarage/conversation pit? (Nearly every whodunnit ever written)


  • What will happen? (Will Salieri really succeed in killing Mozart? The scoundrel!)

Knowing that stories often work on a ‘W-principle’ will get you into a way of thinking whereby you conjure up stories that are imbued with an urgent central narrative question. In one sense, a story can be reduced to a single question (“Will Hamlet succeed in solving the mystery of his father’s death?) But one question leads to many others? What will Hamlet do, now that he’s been given his assignment by the ghost? What will his strategy be? What dangers does he face? In fact, it’s not going too far to say that every scene of your play will be driven by a question central to that scene. (For example, your character wants X in this scene.) When the question has been ‘answered’ (“Bad luck, he doesn’t get it.”) then the scene is over.


Life, love and stories rarely run smoothly. No sooner is a decision made, than a complication occurs. A few examples from Hamlet and Macbeth will show you how many complications you can build into an action.

  • An action may prove to be wrong in timing. Hamlet cannot kill the king at prayer, as the rat will go straight to heaven.
  • An action may prove to be wrong in morality, causing the character to question it, as Hamlet does for much of the first half of the play.
  • An action may be ill-prepared for. Hamlet certainly wasn’t ready for the mission his ghost-father gave him.
  • Even if a character has no doubts as to the morality of it all, an action may require many steps in order to be successfully accomplished. Hamlet must train the Players so that his testing of the king will be effective.
  • An action may have to be tested, checked. Hamlet must establish the truth behind the ghost’s claims.
  • An action may need a plan to carry it out, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth realise.
  • An action may be difficult to carry out, even when the plan is agreed on. Look at the shocking farce that is the murder of Duncan.
  • An action may simply have to be delayed while other matters are attended to. This is useful, as it allows other plot threads to be woven in, and keeps the audience in a pleasant state of impatience.


Once an action is carried out, for example, the murder of Duncan in Macbeth, then it’s a whole new ball game. It’s now a question of consequences, of covering up, or changing from an offensive strategy to one of defence.

I can’t emphasise strongly enough the importance of the notion of CHANGE OF DIRECTION. A change of direction can occur in a host of ways, large and small.

  • A character can change his/her mind, and thus choose a different goal to achieve. Colin in Emerald City decides he’s sick of art, and in a mood of bitter determination decides to become a populist writer and earn lots of money.
  • Events can turn against a character. Shakespeare uses this repeatedly. Those on the ascendant in the first half, are usually running for their lives in the second.
  • Fortunes can change. A character may be rich and powerful at the start of the story, but by halfway, she’s lost everything.
  • Morality may change. A good man may decide that it’s not worth it, and simply move in another moral and wickedly delicious direction.
  • As I’ve already indicated, relationships can definitely change. In fact, I have a personal rule that in every scene that a couple or partnership is in: “One scene per relationship stage’. This means that if character A and B are getting one famously, you have only one scene to show that at work. By the time of the next scene, it’s changed (however slightly) to a new position (for example, suspicion is start to affect their relationship). This rule-of-thumb works far more often than not. In this way, no scene is ever a simple repeat of their previous scene. Something is always going on. Change is always happening.

It’s important to realise this: that a change of direction means that the plot has developed. If you’re ever stuck, and are asking yourself, “How can I develop my plot?”, simply consider making the various actions, fortunes and fates go in an opposite direction. In the first half, Fred is on top of the world. In the second, it’s his partner. I’d even go so far as to say that if you’re writing a two-act play, and there’s no significant change of direction in several ways, then you probably don’t have a second act at all. Your second act is simply more of the same, an extension of what you were trying to do in your first act.


A good story has both surprises and twists built into it. A ‘surprise’ is, not surprisingly, that which comes out of nowhere. A few thoughts on this, based on what I’ve noticed in work

  • The disturbance is usually a surprise– eg surprise visitors, surprise news, (“Guess what? I’m giving away my kingdom to my daughters!”
  • The disturbance-as-surprise usually takes the play to a new level of tension and danger.
  • Every major character needs to have a surprise built into his/her particular journey. The more important character, the more surprises that the character must experience. Look at how many surprises Hamlet experiences.
  • A surprise may be one of information. It can be in something a character discovers about him/herself. It may be something s/he learns about others. It may be something s/he has never been told, even by a long-time lover.
  • The surprise may be one of deduction. The detective, by analysis, establishes that the killer is none other than (his best friend/former partner etc).
  • A surprise happens to a character. It is controlled by others, by events, by things outside the character’s control. It is a very useful structuring device for destabilising the character.

A twist is somewhat different. A twist is “much more or much less than what was expected.” If nothing is expected, then it is a surprise. If a killer walks in your door, then it’s a surprise. But if you already know there’s a killer on the loose, and your mother enters, and it turns out that she’s the killer, that is technically known as a “twist” (quite apart from it being a personal disappointment to you.) It’s not a surprise. After all, you knew there was a killer, but you weren’t expecting it to be your own mother. That’s the rub.


There are usually several major turning points, and lots of minor ones in a play. One of the two theories of scene form, which I’ll be discussing later, states that “the climax of every scene is a turning-point, so that the climax of a scene always results in the reversal of whatever was being striven for or fought over during that scene.” This might mean that if two characters, A and B, are fighting over something, and A is quite dominant, then the climax is that moment where B wins.

The turning point is usually a moment of great pleasure for the audience, after which events start moving toward or away from a character. One of the best turning points in modern theatre is in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In that story, John Proctor, has been accused of consorting with witchcraft and other heinous things, but after a bit of 17th century plea bargaining, it looks like he’ll get off (as the audience wants him to.) For the first time in the play, the audience can breathe freely. The mood among characters and audience is one of relief. The hard work has been done, compromise has been made on all sides. John Proctor will publicly admit that he was involved in witchcraft, and is therefore spared from public hanging. There just remains one small detail. A small matter of paperwork.

DANFORTH:Mr.Proctor, I must have good and legal proof that you—

PROCTOR:You are the high court, you word is good enough! Tell them I confessed myself: say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot—

DANFORTH:(With suspicion) It is the same, is it not? If I report it or you sign to it?

PROCTOR:(He knows it is insane) No, it is not the same! What others say and what I sign to is not the same!

DANFORTH:Why? Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?

PROCTOR:I mean to deny nothing!

DANFORTH:Then explain to me, Mr.Proctor, why you will not let—

PROCTOR:(With a cry of his whole soul) Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The emotional climax has ‘turning’ built into, and often belongs to the same scene as the type of turning point just described. The emotional climax is that vital, fateful moment when a central character realises the definitive truth about the most important thing in his/her life. A few examples: Macbeth has clung on to his belief in his right to power because the witches told him that no one born of woman will overthrow him. But the emotional climax comes for Macbeth when he learns that Macduff was ‘untimely ripped’ from his mother’s womb. From this moment on, the fight goes out of Macbeth. Equally, Romeo’s emotional climax occurs when he thinks (mistakenly) that Juliet is dead, and his struggle to be with her is lost. The emotional resolution—his death—soon follows. The emotional climax is a thrilling moment for an audience when they feel deeply for the character (when he sees that all is lost) or cheer loudly (when victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat.)

Reversal is not simply ‘not getting what you want’. It may also be the temporary frustration of that want; or, worst of all, you get the exact opposite. Characters and relationships can suffer reversals in several key areas: fortune (that is, wealth, material prosperity etc); morals (from ‘good guy’ to black-hat-wearing ‘bad guy’); values and beliefs etc.

As I indicate below, reversal is built into both scene structure and play structure. A good scene climax often reverses the whole momentum of a scene. (For example, she enters the room planning to sack him; but by scene’s end, she is the one who has lost her job.) And as the section on climax and resolution indicate, there is often a balancing tension between these two, frequently involving reversal.


The narrative climax is simply that scene or moment in the play when the forces which have been in conflict for most of the play (eg armies, relationships, business partners, lovers, warring Veronese clans) have their decisive moment. After this moment, one of them has lost, and that’s the end of the story. Antony loses, and suicides. Hedda Gabler can’t have what she want, and makes sure that the man who wants to enslave her won’t either. She picks up a gun. In Glengarry Glen Ross, the truth comes out as to who burgled the real estate office.

The important point to make about the idea of climax is that it usually also involves its equally important partner, catastrophe. Catastrophe is that moment where the worst consequences, whether for the central character or his/her antagonist. What’s often overlooked is that catastrophe almost always involves destruction. The destruction might be the physical elimination of the hero or the villain, whereby by death, sacrifice, execution, duel in Dodge City or accident. It may mean the removal of someone, even by the more genteel method of arrest, firing someone from a position, or their forced resignation. Whatever happens, it involves the death of something or someone. I don’t mean that someone must always die; it may be their hopes, their illusions, their self-delusions (especially when the full truth comes out).

Needless to say that destruction can also involve relationships. When the truth comes out, Nora (of A Doll’s House) walks out. When the final showdown occurs, what’s really killed is the brothers’ relationship. (eg True West) What’s also interesting about the climax and catastrophe of a play is often how noisy it is. The climax is usually the loudest, most violent (physically and emotionally) part of the play. Things get ruined, plates are broken, lives are shattered.

This is one of the most disappointing aspects of Australian theatre. Our theatre is often so well-mannered that even our climaxes are soft, low moments. Everyone just looks a bit more depressed than before. Nothing breaks, nothing hits the fan, the roof is intact, and they’ll probably be back again tomorrow, albeit a little sadder. A glorious exception to this is the work of Steven Sewell. His climaxes– even scene climaxes– often send every sense shuddering. He’s also not afraid to send an axe or two (literally) swinging in our direction. This reminds us that the effect of a catastrophe should be awe-inspiring, reminding us of our littleness in the face of bigger realities. In other words, a climax and its accompanying catastrophe should be scary. Both characters and audience should feel fear, amid a range of emotions. And the worst part of a climax should be uncertainty. We simply don’t know which way it will go. Will these people survive this showdown? Will that relationship hold, or will one of them go mad under the strain?

Don’t misunderstand this point as being a ‘plea for more noise in our theatre climaxes’. A great climax can also be chillingly quiet. I’ve seen productions of The Crucible where John Proctor’s decision is made in an atmosphere of unbearable quiet. Perhaps that’s the real point—either your climax should be brutally and acoustically violent, or the dramatic stakes so unbearable that the characters are rendered speechless in their horrified knowledge of the consequences. Maybe it can be both.

The descriptions of these components of story might appear rather simple, even obvious, but it only looks simple and obvious to those who don’t have to create it. I remember, many years ago, not being sure what a ‘climax’ really was, let alone how it applied to the play I was trying to write. I then came across a very useful statement from Marsha Norman (who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘night Mother). What she said, in essence, was– A play is about one major character who wants something, and at the end of the play, he or she either gets it, or doesn’t.

Putting aside the “one major character” idea, which certainly is too simple, the useful aspect is that last part: the climax is when he or she gets it or doesn’t. Iago gets what he has spent the whole play working for, and he pays the price in a triple catastrophe: the death of Desdemona, Othello and Emilia, his own wife. Romeo and Juliet don’t get what they want, and their only compensation is to die together. John Proctor doesn’t quite get what he wants, which is to live in harmony and peace in the community. But he gets something else instead, which is not just his integrity, but the return to love and feeling between him and his wife.

This brings us to the next type of climaxes. The emotional climax, and the climax of meaning.


It’s not enough for lovers to die, for armies to be routed, for a person’s goals to be achieved or end in failure. Those things may have driven the play to its tension-filled climax, but those action-filled climaxes are often followed by two other climaxes, which I call the emotional resolution, and the ‘climax of meaning.’

In The Crucible, once it is inevitable that Proctor will die, then there is a crucial scene where Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, resolve the things that blocked their own love. This is done, and Proctor goes to his death. In the final moments, when she is being begged to get her husband to reconsider, she refuses, saying, “He has his honour.” That is what the play was ultimately dealing with; not witchcraft or the evil that good Christian men do. Just honour. Having or finding integrity despite the machines of the witch scare (main plot) or your own human frailties (emotional plot).

Incidentally, television series usually work this way. First, the main plot (which generated most of the outer, social and surface action) is resolved, then the emotional (usually by resolving where the major relationships of the story are), and finally the climax of meaning (Has all this effort served any purpose?) In TV however, the climax of meaning is often a light ‘pay-off’ to a running gag or a minor third plot thread.


The ending is usually a confirmation of the three climaxes I’ve just discussed. Occasionally, however, there is a moment which actually reverses the whole thrust of the play and even the story’s climax. Something may happen in the closing moments (or seconds) which threaten to undo the good or bad work that constituted the climax. Paranoid thrillers, vampire movies, and some operas work like this. In the movie, Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford’s character has spent most of the movie fighting the CIA, his former employers. He defeats them at the end, and not only gets out of it alive, but is about to take his story to the New York Times, so the whole world can learn about this villainy at the heart of U.S. government. But the last words of the nasty CIA boss are, “How do you know they’ll print it?” Redford freezes. The fear in his face tell us they probably won’t. “They’ll always get you in the end” is the real climax of meaning here.

Similarly, when all is lost, and Lohengrin (in Wagner’s opera of the same name) has to take the next swan back to the land of the Holy Grail, he leaves. But then something unusual (even for a Wagnerian opera) happens: when the swan has delivered Lohengrin to a waiting boat, it then returns… and turns into a young boy with a big sword, whom we suspect will turn into a great hero even mightier than the one who just left. In a moment, the tragic fatalism has turned into symbolic redemption. The story has been turned on its head. That is what a ‘climax of meaning’ usually does.