As I wrote in my last blog post, it’s important to raise the personal stakes for your characters as your play progresses. You want to characters–and by extension, your audience–feel the need to move forward in the plot in order to reach that all important crisis point that triggers the main event of your play: the climax. To help you understand this concept, you might find Stuart Spenser’s analogy from his book The Playwright’s Guidebook a helpful way of thinking about how the basic building blocks of plays come together to create a unified whole.
First, let’s address the concept of the beat. Think of a play as a biological organism or a chemical compound comprised of molecules and atoms (Sorry to bring science into this, but just stick with me here.). If you were to break down a play into its smallest, most fundamental pieces, you would look through your play writing microscope and see each of its “atoms” or beats. A beat has one action (something a character wants), one conflict (some kind of obstacle that prevents the character from getting what s/he wants), and one outcome or event (when the character either gets or doesn’t get what s/he wants.).
If you were to zoom your microscope out a bit further, you would see a whole bunch of little beats floating around, organizing themselves into a larger molecule, called a scene. A scene, then, is made up of several beats that eventually arrive at the scene’s major event, which you could also call its emotional point of arrival. A scene can contain one beat or several, depending on what needs to happen in your scene to get you to the scene’s high point. As the smallest division of action in a play, a scene’s actions will generally all take place in a single time and location. If you are going to move characters to a new location or you want to show that time has passed, you can move on to your next scene, but know also that in some plays, a new scene comes about not because time has passed or there is a change in location. A playwright starts a new scene because its time to shift the audience’s or the characters’ attentions to the next emotional point of arrival.
Acts in a play, then, mark major divisions in a play’s action. There is no set rule for how many acts a play requires. Ancient Greeks didn’t use them. In Shakespeare’s day, plays generally had five acts, and nowadays, two seems to be the norm. And some plays are only one act in length. An act is essentially a collection of scenes, each one with its own emotional point of arrival (i.e. each scene has its own big event) that are all leading up to the act’s climactic moment. In a play with several acts, all of the big climactic moments work like cliff hangers or big twists, each one helping set up the one thing the audience paid their money to see: the major climactic moment of the entire play where everything finally clicks into place and your protagonist squares off against your antagonist for one last “do or die moment.”
How exactly does this look when it works right? Take a peek at Stuart Spenser’s graph of what he considers the perfect play:
As Spencer illustrates in this graph,
action and conflict rise to the moment of and event, fall slightly, though not to the beginning point. Scene Two takes up again using some of the information, tension, etc., that was introduced in the first scene. The action and conflict rise to the point of another event, then fall slightly, and then begin again with Scene Three. The end of Scene Three is also the end of Act One. It is the highest point of action and conflict in the Act….[I]f there is one general lesson to be learned from this graph, it is that action and conflict should never be allowed to lesson over the course of the play. The fortunes of the hero may decline…, but his need only increases and his problems become…more [numerous]. (105-106)