Plays have a formal structure that allows playwrights to translate their creative vision into a live stage setting. Part of the structure of a successful play is creating scenes that set the stage for characters, dialogue, and dramatic action, but why do scenes make a successful play?

Plays are divided into scenes to separate the play into manageable sections for audiences to absorb and facilitate setting, character, costume, and set changes. The playwright uses scenes to control the narrative flow, and tension, develop character and conflict and enhance audience engagement. 

Reading a novel without any chapter breaks may leave you confused and somewhat overwhelmed. Scenes, like chapters, are essential for framing the action into a cohesive sequence and building the conflict and tension integral to a successful play. This article will show you how important scenes are and the purposes of dividing a play into scenes. 

Purpose of Scenes in a Play

When the scene begins, the playwright determines the setting and who and what to reveal on the stage. You will often hear the terms AT or At Rise in playwriting circles. This is the part of the written script that sets the scene’s characters in time and place. 

The At Rise description emerged in the early days of playwriting, where it referred to the rising of the curtains in large raised arch playhouses. While they used to separate setting and At Rise description in the old days, today they are typically placed together.

Although the AT is the written form of the scene description, the scene itself plays several essential roles in the overall play.

What Is a Scene?

A scene is a subdivision of an act and a unit of action in a play that introduces new settings and characters at a chosen time. While an act defines itself by rising action, climax, and resolution, the scene features action that takes place in one place and at a specific time.

Acts and scenes are further divided by their length and depth. While an act contains several scenes that can run for an extended time in performances, scenes feature a brief situation of action and dialogue within the greater whole. 

Unlike novels or short stories that take their shape in paragraphs, plays primarily use dialogue in the form of a script that consists of one or more acts that playwrights then subdivide into scenes. 

When you create a play, it is essential to consider the sequence of elements, such as scenes that determine the plot, influence the action and provide the narrative arc. 

If you are writing a play without intermission, you will likely compose your entire play in scenes. But if you plan an interval, you will probably divide your play into two acts containing multiple scenes.

Playwrights mark off scenes from the scenes before and after by dimming lights, a curtain, or a brief emptying of the stage. 

Roles of the Scene in a Play

  • Tells a story: Whether it’s a love scene, flashback, or conflict scene, each scene has a specific storytelling purpose that is integral to the play as a whole.
  • Provides vital information: Each scene reveals information that has the power to shift the course of the play, such as exposition or backstory, or character motivations. 
  • Introduces the character/narrator’s point of view: POV helps direct the audience’s attention and focus and adds vital elements to the unfolding drama. 
  • Further character development: Through the use of obstacles and challenges, each scene is an opportunity for your character to develop and grow.
  • Each scene contains one incident that informs the play as a whole. Each scene functions to move the protagonist(s) one step closer to their goal. 
  • Introduces a series of stakes: Setting up stakes gives the character a purpose and keeps the audience engaged in the unfolding drama. Each scene should present something at stake to make a successful play. 
  • Escalates the conflict: Scenes function to escalate conflict and engage the audience in increasing levels of attention. 
  • A scene is like a play in miniature. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end and a transition point that links it to the following scenes.
  • Facilitates set changes: The division of scenes allows the physical changing of characters’ costumes and set.

Division of Scenes and Sequence

Almost all plays fall into the classic three-act structure. Since Aristotle formulated his dramatic structure in Poetics, the three-act form has had an indelible influence on the art of playwriting. This three-act structure usually determines the narrative arc of a play, which includes:

  • The first act or the exposition 
  • The second act or the complication 
  • The third act is the resolution 

A novel would be exhausting if the writer removed every chapter and you had only a continuous wall of prose. 

Likewise, plays need scenes to break the greater work into more intelligible units. As a playwright, you have three essential sequence elements to work with, of which scenes have primary importance. 

The Opening Scene/Scenes

Although they mark the beginning of a play, your opening scene introduces the significant action. A strong opening scene introduces characters, situations, and relationships but primarily functions to capture the audience’s attention and engagement. 

Although there is usually one opening scene, a playwright can use multiple opening scenes to introduce multiple significant actions that make up their play. 

Obstacle and Complications Scene Sequence

The scene sequence element involves presenting obstacles and complications within your play by showing conflicts. Usually, this takes the form of the protagonists trying to move forward towards their goal and opposing forces standing against and impeding their progress.

This opposition usually plays out over several scenes as the play moves through time to show the significance of the action in the greater dramatic arc. 

Climax and Crisis Scene Sequence

The climax of your play’s scene sequence is the decisive moment in which the playwright intentionally reverses rising action into falling action. 

Simply put, rising action refers to the tension a play builds up to the climax while falling action occurs after the climax and acts to decrease tension and lead to resolution. At this point in your scene sequence, the opposing forces in your play usually come head to head, and the balance of forces is tested. 

Although crisis and climax usually occur together, they can be separated into two distinct entities by critics:

  • Climax: Refers to the purely structural element of the plot.
  • Crisis: Crisis signifies the point of the play with the greatest emotional intensity. 

Closing Thoughts

Scenes are a vital component of plays that frame the action in a defined sequence to enhance audience engagement. Scenes also facilitate the physical necessities of working in a live theater medium. Playwrights also use the scene structure to fulfill several dramatic functions that make live theater so magical and transporting.

Categories: Playwriting

Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.