What Is a Formal Drama?

by Nathaniel Williams
In Aristotle's day, both comedy and tragedy were considered forms of drama.

In Aristotle's day, both comedy and tragedy were considered forms of drama.

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Formal drama refers to theatrical, written or filmed drama that adheres to traditional dramatic structure. Aristotle was one of the first to write analytically about drama and defined many of its characteristics, which we use only moderately altered today. There is of course no drama police or governing body, so the definition of formal drama is subjective.


Traditional drama tends to be centered around one principal character, known as the protagonist, and never more than a small handful of characters. A drama might involve many dozens of characters overall, but true traditional drama must have a central protagonist. Characteristics for this protagonist include sympathy, consistency of action and direct action upon the story. Critically, the protagonist must be seen as a driving force in the direction of the plot, not just a victim or benefactor of fortune.


Formal drama has a defined structure, typically arranged in acts. An act may be constituted by multiple scenes, but the overall act encapsulates a basic direction of the narrative. Generally, these acts include an introduction where characters and the situation are introduced, a rising action where internal conflict is developed, a climax where the central conflict is resolved either happily or unhappily, and a denouement that ties up the story's end.


Drama must emotionally engage the audience. Whether it is comic or tragic, the story must allow the audience to become emotionally involved in the story and to experience catharsis at its conclusion. Catharsis comes from the Greek "to purge," and refers to the healing effects of going through a satisfying vicarious emotional experience. Proponents of drama believe that to become deeply involved with even the most tragic drama is actually psychologically beneficial to the audience.


In addition to the basic structure, drama must be constructed in a way that compels the audience to wonder what might happen next. An overly predictable procession of events is not successful drama, nor is a series of seemingly random occurrences that leaves the audience scratching its heads. The dramatist must present just enough information to allow the audience to speculate about what might happen next without being able to reliably predict it. Careful construction of suspense in an emotionally compelling way is quite difficult, which is why great drama is so rarely achieved.

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