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Elements of Drama: Characters, Plot, Setting & Symbolism

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  • 0:07 Dramatic Form
  • 1:08 Setting and Staging
  • 2:19 Characters and Actors
  • 3:18 Plot
  • 5:49 Symbolism
  • 6:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Have you ever wondered how actors in a play can convey a story without the audience reading the script? Watch and learn how playwrights use dramatic elements to tell a story on the stage.

Understanding Drama

A drama, or a play, is a piece of writing that is presented almost exclusively through dialogue. Like a short story or novel, it has a setting, characters, plot, and even symbolism. However, the way in which they are presented to the audience is different, because unlike a short story or novel, the play is meant to be performed in front of an audience, not read.

Dramatic Form

Plays are not written in paragraphs like a novel or short story. Instead, they are written as lines of dialogue in the form of a script. You can see in this example from August Wilson's Fences that the characters are told exactly what to say for the dialogue. Typically, these scripts are broken down into one or more acts, or major divisions of the play. And each act is then subdivided into a scene, or smaller divisions within the act. Usually a change in setting means there will be a change in either the act or the scene. In this case, this is Act I, Scene 2, and the scene has shifted onto Rose.

Act I

Scene 2

The LIGHTS come up on ROSE hanging up clothes.

SHE hums and sings softly to herself.

It is the following morning.

ROSE. (Sings.)

Jesus, be a fence all around me every day

Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way.

Jesus, be a fence all around me every day.

(TROY enters from the house)

ROSE

Jesus, I want you to protect me

As I travel on my way.

(To TROY.) Morning. You ready for breakfast? I can fix it as soon as I finish hanging up these clothes?

TROY. I got the coffee on. That'll be all right. I'll just drink some of that this morning.

Setting and Staging

In addition to the dialogue, a script will also include stage directions. These notes, which are often in italics or parentheses, help the actors interpret the scene for the audience. In this example, when Rose transitions from singing to speaking directly to Troy, the stage directions tell her to whom she is talking. The audience will only see her turn and direct her comment to Troy.

ACT I

Scene 1

The setting is the yard which fronts the only entrance to the MAXSON household, an ancient two story brick house set back off a small alley in a big-city neighborhood. The entrance to the house is gained by two or three steps leading to a wooden porch badly in need of paint. A relatively recent addition to the house and running its full width, the porch lacks congruence. It is a sturdy porch with a flat room. One or two chairs of dubious value sit at one end where the kitchen window opens on to the porch. An old-fashioned icebox stands silent guard at the opposite end.

Unlike a novel, which may devote several paragraphs to describing the setting, the play is limited to what the audience can see on stage. It is important that the playwright give some indication to setting, especially if the actors will use the items on stage. In some cases, the stage directions provide information on what the stage should look like. Other times, they tell the actors where or how to move, or what facial expressions or tone of voice is appropriate when speaking a line.

In this except from Fences, the director and actors can visualize how the stage should appear to the audience. And while they will not have an actual house on a stage, they will have the window and entrances in corresponding places so that the audience can visualize the scene as well.

Characters and Actors

Before the dialogue in a script, the playwright will often include a cast of characters. Typically, each character, both major and minor, is listed alongside a brief description of the character's role in the story. In this example, you can see that Troy is the main character, and each character is described in relation to him.

Characters

TROY MAXSON

JIM BONO, Troy's friend

ROSE, Troy's wife

LYONS, Troy's oldest son by previous marriage

GABRIEL, Troy's brother

CORY, Troy and Rose's son

RAYNELL, Troy's daughter

This list is usually given to audience members on a printed playbill, or program, as they enter the theatre, so that they may identify the major characters and the actors who will play them. Of course, the biggest difference between characters in prose and characters in drama is that live people, or actors, are representing the characters in drama. The actors are chosen based on both their physical and verbal ability to interpret the character. Sometimes it's important that an actor have certain physical characteristics, such as red hair or stocky nature, because it is an important aspect of the play.

Plot

The plot structure of the play doesn't really differ from that in prose. There is an exposition, a rising action, a climax, falling action, and the resolution.

In the play Fences, the exposition explains that Troy Maxson is a garbage man who loves his family, in spite of the fact he is cheating on his wife, Rose. The main conflict comes when Troy's son, Cory, wants to go to college on a football scholarship, but Troy doesn't want him to go because he's afraid he'll be discriminated against like he had been when he played baseball. In the rising action, Troy goes to Cory's coach and tells him that Cory can't play football anymore. Cory accuses Troy of being jealous. Troy's affair with Alberta comes out when she becomes pregnant.

Alberta dies during childbirth, and Rose agrees to raise the child, but is no longer attached to Troy. The climax is when Troy and Cory fight. Troy kicks Cory out of the house. During the falling action, several years later, Troy is dead and Cory doesn't want to go to his funeral, a decision his mother does not agree with. But the resolution comes when Cory and Raynell sing a song together, one that Troy used to sing. As they sing in honor of Troy, the audience knows that Cory can forgive his father.

The conflict occurs before the rising action begins, and the conflict is the problem that must be solved. Sometimes the conflict is between two characters, like Troy and Cory, and plays out on stage with dialogue and actions. Other times, it's an internal conflict between the character and his or her own thoughts or actions.

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