30 Powerful Elements of Drama
The elements of drama began with Greek philosopher Aristotle who stated in The Poetics (c.335 BC) each dramatic performance (tragedy) must contain the six key elements of plot, character, thought (theme), diction (language), melody (music-dance, song, rhythm) and spectacle. This is history’s first surviving example of dramatic theory.
In contemporary drama education, there is no prescribed or definitive list of the elements of drama. Below is a list of 30 of the most common elements of drama with my own descriptors, gained from over 30 years of teaching practice in drama education. Where similar terms mean the same (such as focus and emphasis), I have included both terms. I trust this post may prove useful for both drama/theatre teachers and their students, alike. Enjoy! – Justin Cash
30 Elements of Drama
Action, or dramatic action, refers to the propelling of the plot from one moment to the next in the drama. This will naturally relate to the structure of the play, as the action moves forward from the early stages (exposition) to the inciting incident, rising action, one or more crises, the climax, falling action, and then the conclusion. See the “Structure” entry further down this list for more information on how plays are formed.
Of all the essential elements of drama, the audience must exist for it to be considered a performance – a play without an audience should be considered a rehearsal.
An audience can specifically refer to the engagement actors have with their audience through performance, known as the actor-audience relationship. The exact nature of this relationship can vary depending on the style of the performance.
For example, a performer in a purely naturalistic drama may ignore the audience altogether (they may even have their back facing the audience), while a performer in a realistic drama may be aware of the presence of an audience but not perform directly to them, whereas a performer in an epic theatre play by Bertolt Brecht may regularly break the fourth wall and interact directly with sections of the audience. Manipulating exactly how a performer relates and engages with the audience in a performance can be both an academic exercise and fun at the same time.
Most dramas will have one or more crises in the development of the plot. A crisis is a key moment of dramatic tension and conflict in the play, usually occurring between two or more characters and having serious implications for the outcome of the plot. The ultimate crisis, or highest peak, is usually called the climax and often (but not always) occurs toward the end of a play. There can also be more than one climax in a drama, although this is uncommon. An anti-climax is also possible.
Conflict is one of the key elements of drama. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said ‘No conflict, no drama’. How right he was! A drama that lacks conflict is normally dull and uninspiring. As a rule, conflict should always be considered an essential ingredient for all dramatic performances.
Conflict can be between two or more characters, or simply one (inner conflict). Many Elizabethan soliloquies contain inner conflict (‘To be or not to be…’ is an excellent example). Conflict on stage can be verbal, physical, or non-verbal. Conflict differs from tension in that it is often a fixed and permanent part of the structure of a play embedded in the fabric of the drama, often from the outset, with characters destined to clash with one another.
Without the careful use of contrast, performances are boring and lack tension. In simple terms, contrast is a point of difference. An obvious example of contrast is a sad scene followed by a happy scene. But contrast can be created in more subtle and sophisticated ways, such as manipulating the drama to create a change in setting, pace, or time.
The contrast between characters should also be considered. Contrast can be created by changes in language, timing, mood, lighting, energy, relationships, situation, and more. Careful use of contrast as one of the elements of drama in performance can keep an audience actively engaged, throughout.
A convention is an acting or staging technique. Examples of conventions include the use of a narrator, an aside, a soliloquy, a direct address, the use of placards, songs, etc. Conventions are often associated with performance styles, which in turn are commonly associated with one or more theatre practitioners. Sometimes conventions are linked more generally with the way theatre was performed in a certain era, for example, the conventions of absurdism or Elizabethan theatre.
7. Dramatic Moment
A moment, or dramatic moment, is self-explanatory. It is a specific moment in the play, usually lasting only a short time, where the action is dramatic in some way. But being dramatic does not always mean loud noises and lots of moving characters. A dramatic moment can be a poignant moment of stillness or silence. Dramatic moments can also occur with only a single actor and even without sets and props, such is the power of drama. The tempo and rhythm of a play often change when a dramatic moment occurs. Tension is often manipulated when creating dramatic moments and the element of contrast is commonly employed.
Energy is the intensity of a character’s actions in the drama. Many plays contrast one or more high-energy characters with low-energy characters. Energy, therefore, refers to both vivacious and vibrant characters as well as slow, dispirited, or tired characters. Before a character can be portrayed with a certain type of energy, the performer must possess this energy. In general terms, energy can also refer to the intensity of specific performances or the type of show being performed (e.g. a musical).
9. Focus / Emphasis
Focus has multiple meanings in drama and performance. While it can often be used interchangeably with the term concentration, as an element of drama, focus is more often associated with emphasis. Unlike in movies or television, where the filmmaker can zoom into the actor or area in question, in the theatre, we need to employ other techniques to attract the focus of the audience.
How do we channel the attention of the audience to a certain area of the stage in order to give this particular space appropriate emphasis? How do we focus the lens of the spectator on the small bird in the hand of the actor downstage left? What directorial techniques can we employ to place focus on the two pirates sneaking onto the ship upstage? How can we use theatrical lighting to ensure emphasis is placed on the character who is singing? These are all challenges associated with focus and emphasis in performances.
10. Language / Text
The use of language in performance can be verbal, vocal, or non-verbal. Language is normally spoken text. It is the written script realised in performance. While normally spoken by the actor, language can also be chanted or sung. Language can also deliberately be nonsensical for dramatic effect.
The choice of language as one of the elements of drama is crucial, as it forms a major means of communicating the story of the drama to the audience. Exactly how the actor in a performance chooses to use language is usually determined by the expressive skill of voice. However, language can also be non-verbal, commonly referred to as body language. The elements of voice and language should not be confused. Using the voice is the process of speaking the verbal language.
11. Dramatic Metaphor
Metaphor in drama involves a second reference in order to enhance the meaning of the first. For example “The man is a goose”. The description of the qualities of the first reference (the man) is enhanced by knowledge of the second reference (the fact that a goose is considered a silly waterfowl by its looks, big feet, and awkward behaviour).
A literary example of metaphor can be found in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, set in the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, but actually about the spread of Communism in 1950s America (the time and place of the play’s writing).
Bertolt Brecht employed a similar dramatic metaphor in his work The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play set in 1930s gangster-ridden Chicago that was really about Hitler’s Germany. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was not about animals at all, but Russia and the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule.
Dramatic metaphors, however, should not be confused with the use of symbols. When an object is used as a symbol, it is replaced by the symbolic meaning – for example, the red rose is now replaced by the feeling of love. However, with dramatic metaphor, the second reference enhances this meaning without replacing it.
12. Mood / Atmosphere
The mood is the feeling or tone of a performance and is naturally associated with the atmosphere. It refers to ambiance or aura and is often created through a combination of several elements of drama and production areas working in harmony. The atmosphere of performances are closely linked with everyday feelings such as fear or desire.
The mood in drama can be created via sound, lighting, movement, props, setting, rhythm, contrast, conflict, and more. It is also possible to create a particular mood or atmosphere in just one moment or scene in a play. Therefore you can have more than one mood presented in a single performance.
Movement is the self-explanatory act of a performer moving in the drama according to the character’s objective, motivation, surrounding circumstances, and interaction with other characters. The physical action of movement often defines character relationships and situations. While certain types of movement can involve walking (and the hundreds of different ways of doing just this), running, sliding, falling, etc, stage space needs to be used, including upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right, etc.
14. Plot / Story
The plot is the action of the drama. Many plays have more than one plot, often consisting of the main plot and one or more (less important) plots known as subplots. Shakespeare’s dramas are classic examples of plays with multiple plots keeping the audience engaged at every turn.
The “story” of a drama is usually considered any action referred or implied to on stage, but not seen. This is often the backstory of various characters revealed in the early part of the drama (exposition). The story differs from the plot of the drama in that the plot must be seen by the audience.
Posture is the position in which a character holds their body when standing or sitting (not moving). Posture can define a character’s attitude, social status, inner feelings, rank, and more. Posture is similar to a character’s pose or stance.
Relationships are also sometimes considered one of the elements of drama. This refers to the interrelationships between characters in a play. Character connections affect the way the plot evolves. These relationships may be friendly, conflicting, romantic, of equal status, or otherwise. Some relationships in a drama may be fixed, while others may be variable and subject to change as the plot evolves.
Rhythm is more commonly a musical term. In drama, rhythm refers to timing and pace. It also means the beat or tempo of the whole performance. As a rule, rhythm should never be the same throughout the drama, regardless of its length. Rhythm can follow the emotional state of one or more characters or the atmosphere of the play at particular moments.
Rhythm is closely linked to movement. An everyday ritual presented on stage, such as getting ready for work in the morning, can involve repetitive and rhythmic actions and gestures. What is the rhythm of the long line of people in the unemployment queue? What is the rhythm of the classroom scene where students are misbehaving with the substitute teacher? How does the rhythm contrast in these two examples?
Rhythm can also have a place in the delivery of dialogue. The most obvious example is the text of Shakespearean dramas delivered using iambic pentameter. But all character dialogue, no matter how informal, should have a particular rhythm attached to it.
18. Role / Character
Role and character lie at the heart of all drama because, without these elements, the drama would not exist. Role and character are often used interchangeably to mean the same, while sometimes these terms are separated. The role is normally associated with role-playing in drama, which can occur at any level. Taking on a role often occurs as part of the process of drama and not always the product (performance). However, it is also entirely acceptable to ask an actor what his or her role is in the play.
Role-playing is popular in drama improvisation games and often involves quick transitions into roles with little or no preparation, sometimes involving a stimulus. While adopting a role is critical in understanding the essence of drama, it is often considered less complex than portraying a character. Characters often have sophisticated backstories and undergo changes during the development of the plot. Portraying a character involves the application of expressive and performance skills. In professional theatre, there are numerous acting methods for developing and sustaining character (e.g. The Method).
19. Setting / Place
Setting refers to the location of a scene, play, or musical. It is one of the fundamental elements of drama. Many dramas have more than one setting. Productions with physical sets normally have clearly defined settings, but smaller dramas and one-person plays (monodramas) may have little or no sets or props to help identify locations. In these examples, the performer will use dialogue and other expressive skills in order to denote a setting, including any changes. This is known as an implied place or setting.
The situation in drama refers to the given circumstances of the dramatic action happening in the play. This is a straightforward concept. What is the setting of the play (time, location, etc)? What are the circumstances of the given scene (an argument, marriage proposal, a betrayal of friendship, medical emergency, school assembly, election campaign, etc)? Clearly conveying the situation in the play at any particular time makes the drama coherent for the audience.
21. Sound / Music
Contemporary theatre relies on sound and music in a number of ways. While theatre has traditionally used lighting to create an atmosphere in performance, sound and music is being increasingly manipulated to create mood. The use of sound can involve the implementation of technology, such as sound effects and soundscapes. Actors and their bodies can also construct effective sound in performance. Small props can create sound effects that can be used live during a show. Sound in drama can even involve the absence of sound!
Space is one of the critical elements of drama, referring to the effective use of available space in performance. Space can be both horizontal and vertical. Performers can be upstage or downstage, stage left or stage right. Different levels of space can also be utilised such as sitting, bending over, lying down, crawling, or physically using another level of a stage set. In order to use space effectively, movement becomes an important factor.
Effective use of space also involves clearly communicating to the audience where the action is taking place. This may include any changes in location that occur in the performance, particularly if little or no sets or props are being used and there is a heavy reliance on the audience’s imagination – otherwise known as implied space in the drama. Sometimes theatre buildings or specific productions can be created using a particular space such as traverse staging, proscenium arch, thrust staging, or arena/in the round.
Historically, the spectacle was one of the obligatory elements of drama outlined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in The Poetics. Aristotle referred to spectacle elements as costumes, scenery, actor gestures, and the sensory effects of the resonance of the performer’s voice (sound).
In a contemporary context, spectacle refers to all the visual elements of a play – those incorporating theatre stagecraft and production areas. These can include stage sets, lighting, costumes, props, make-up, special effects, and multimedia. Spectacle in contemporary theatre is probably more important today than it was centuries ago due to the advent of technology and its integration into all levels of the theatre.
Structure, or dramatic structure, refers to the backbone of a drama. A typical structure of a play involves the exposition and initial action at the beginning, an inciting incident where the conflict and point of attack within the play are revealed, rising action involving conflict and one or more crises, and the ultimate crisis known as the climax, then the falling action towards the latter part of the drama leading to the conclusion, which is not always a happy resolution. The French word denouement is often used to define a play’s ending. Translated into English, denouement means the untying or unravelling of the knot, in other words, the untying of all the complexities of the plot into a suitable conclusion.
Non-typical structures involve cyclical plots that end where they began, evident in some absurdist plays. The simple fact that Shakespeare and his contemporaries always wrote plays in a five-act format is also an example of structure. In later years, a three-act format was common, further reduced to two acts. Today, short one-act plays consisting of numerous brief scenes are a common dramatic structure in contemporary theatre.
The symbol is one of the principal elements of drama. The use of symbols in dramatic performance can be one of the simplest and also most complicated of all techniques. Symbolism implies a greater meaning than the literal suggestion. Props are the easiest to work with because objects in everyday life are symbols in society (a rose symbolises love; a cross symbolises Christianity). Symbols can also be found in the use of colour. We often symbolise purple with royalty, red with anger or desire, black with evil and darkness, or white with purity and innocence.
Colour association can be worthwhile symbols with costumes, sets, and props. But the most sophisticated use of symbols occurs with the application of gesture and movement. A particular gesture performed by a character early in performance can be repeated in another context and have a very different meaning. Used only once, a gesture can also be a powerful symbol. All of these examples can be combined for an even better effect.
Tension is sometimes referred to as dramatic tension and usually lies with the development of suspense. As the audience anticipates certain outcomes in the plot, the tension builds. Tension differs from conflict in that it is usually a transient occurrence that may take place multiple times in a single play. An obvious example of rising tension occurs in a mystery play or whodunit. In these instances, the audience is left in a constant state of suspense trying to determine the real culprit. The development of tension therefore usually parallels the advancement of the plot, leading to a crisis or climax. Tension is closely linked with the element of timing.
Theme refers to what a play is about (often the central idea), while what specifically happens on stage is the plot. Through the dramatic action of the plot, the deeper meaning of the play is revealed. A single play can consist of multiple themes. Extracting a theme from a play involves viewing it with a wider lens and seeing the bigger picture. Is the play about a group of friends from different cultures really about racism? Examples of themes in plays are power, revenge, mateship, love, greed, nature, good versus evil, coming of age, family, isolation, redemption, injustice, etc.
The notion of time is one of the indispensable elements of drama in most performances. In period drama, time may be as broad as a particular era, such as the 1880s. Other dramas loosely convey a modern or contemporary portrayal of time. Some plays contain a specific time that must be conveyed to the audience. These may involve the season of the year, month, day, or even hour. More generic use of time involves the use of the future, although this can also be specific by stating the actual year.
Time can also refer to how long the drama takes to perform. This can be of particular importance in naturalistic dramas where the length of stage time in a play may equal real-time in the theatre. Flash forwards, flashbacks, and other disjointed time sequences in a drama can also refer to changes in time. Alternatively, plays can deliberately appear timeless within the world of the play. Some absurdist dramas deliberately follow this structure.
Timing in performance refers to the dramatic timing of movements and gestures. We often take our movements for granted in everyday life, but when performing, the use of our bodies must be carefully considered and controlled. Timing can be manipulated to demonstrate authentic, stylised, or non-realistic movements and gestures. The timing of movements of a tired old man will differ from those of an energetic young schoolboy. Similarly, the gestures of a tyrannical dictator will differ from the suppressed people living under his regime. Rhythm, pace, and movement are particularly affected by timing in drama.
As one of the elements of drama, voice is critical to most performances. A drama without the use of voice is considered a movement piece or a mime. While some would place the voice in the category of a performer’s expressive skills, it is nevertheless an element essential to nearly every drama. Vocal variety can be achieved via the use of projection, pitch, tone, rate (pace), emphasis, diction (articulation/enunciation), rhythm (beat), pause, intonation, tempo, subtext, and even silence.
So educative. I am a drama teacher and I learned a lot from this post. I’m in my second year of teaching drama. I’m self teaching. I didn’t have much training on the subject. Thank you so much, I learned a lot.
Justin, what a wonderful resource this is. Thank you for your passion, knowledge, clarity, and generous sharing.
Much gratitude and praise from a NZ teacher
Colleen, thank you so much! That’s lovely feedback. Appreciate it. – Justin
the above content is so helpful
Thanks for the feedback, NDIKUBWIMANA Jacques!
Thank you so much Drama Teacher. You are so special, this is quality teaching.
I found it useful. I could learn something new.Thanks.
Hey do you know dramatic elements of festivals. Thanks
I wasn’t aware there was such a thing, Asoka. -Justin
this was a great help.
a i used it for my drama assessment so it was good that i had a source that was quick and easy to understand!
DRAMA IS IN THE FILMS, BUT DOES DRAMA GET HELP FROM FILMS , ANYWAY ,
THE QUESTION IS BECAUSE DRAMA IS RELATIVELY TUFF………
This helped a lot and I am really grateful for someone doing this. I ended up getting an A and this really helped with that.
Thanks a lot , really helped for my research , very helpful ????
Glad to hear it, Hayden! – Justin
It helps me… but theres one thing that u dont answer the… spectacle…
This is a great resource for teaching /learning of drama.Thanks.
This is helping me with my exams, thank you!
Excellent! Thanks for your feedback, Liam.
ROLES AND RELATIONSHIPS?
NIfty bro. PRECISELY what i wanted!
This didn’t help……
I have some feedback
list the definitions, terms and more about
This doesn’t help. Were the technical elements and stuff?
I agree with you my sister
This is Chadrin Nseemani, thank you very much probably my examination will be nice!
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Can I get some help with: props, costumes, stage direction etc.#helpneeded
Correct me if I’m wrong, please, but aren’t props, costumes, stage directions etc. elements of production?
Great post! Have nice day ! 🙂
Always come back to this website whenever doing a drama assignment. Thanks to you I got an A+!!!!
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Thanks for your feedback, Medardo.
This has been very helpful to me especially as I’m a self- tutored high school teacher of literature-in-English
Great to hear, Ohemeng.
Very interesting and informative forum. As a drama enthusiast, it keeps me abreast of the global elements of drama. Congrats to all of you and keep up the great work.
Yes they are all dramatic elements
The elements of time and place aren’t on this.
I would love to see this page updated to reflect the new curriculum! Great website. 😀
Thanks Sarah. I’ve been meaning to update this page for some time. It was originally written well before the VCAA developed descriptors for the dramatic elements in the VCE Drama course (first there were 11, then 12, now 9 elements). But the stats tell me this page consistently has interest from across the globe. I think I’ll update it to reflect the various elements of drama studied in all of the states and territories of Australia. This will double the current list with additional terms. I’ll get on to it!
Thanks this helped me with my 2.2 drama devising standard.
that helped a lot
Thanks that really help me pass my assignment
But I would love it if I could get more importance of language in Drama.
I found this to be useful to me as well.Thanks
am writing an assignment on features of drama on the following characteristics suspense, plot, conflicts, protagonist, flashback, climax and interlude. your information is really helping me.
Would like to commend the writer on the amount of information. It helped a lot for me and cleared up the dramatic elements.
Please comment on the following: Performance space; Placement of audience; Symbols; Use and meaning of props; economical use of sets for different meanings; lighting to illustrate moods diff time frame and contrast.
Thanking you in advance
Why no Allegory heere 🙁 ??
Because there is no universally agreed set of dramatic elements. You will find different lists in text books and around the web. However, here is a post I wrote some years ago with a definition of allegory that you may find useful if you are after one: https://thedramateacher.com/allegory/
This was very helpfull
Tnks.. Am a student of theatre n perf Art in ABU zaria… This has reali hlp me in studin for my exams… Tnks alot
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria? Happy to see The Drama Teacher being used by students all over the world. I’m glad this article helped you in your studies. – Justin
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Hi! I agree so much on this and it helped me alot!
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Glad to hear this post helped you, Abi.
Thanks so much for this! I’m a Drama student and your site is the most useful one that I have found for my study!!!
Thanks for your feedback Belleb8. Happy to hear my site has been useful for your drama studies.
This information helped me during my exams. More greaz 2 your elbow
Cheers. Glad to hear it helped, Glorious.
It was need of our circle,we are obliged,
Thanks for this information. You’ve ease my stress. This is just what I need for my assignment.
YES! this is exactly what i need for my asses task
Good to hear Decan.
This is a great resources, however for those teachers who come from Australia – especially Queenland we have based the Elements of Drama on the works of a great Australian Drama Educator in one of the books that he co-wrote called “Drama Wise” (a bible for many teachers) and we use the following – Human Context (role, relationship and situation), Focus, Tension, Movement, Language, Time, Mood, Symbol and Place to create Dramatic Meaning. I hope I listed them all. States like New South Wales use elements such as Contrast and Rhythm, but I would include them in the EOD’s I listed above. I hope this gives people a different look into the way that drama is explored in different places.
The above list of dramatic elements is based on those used in senior drama studies in Victoria, as this website originates from Melbourne. Its origins stem from the list originally being published by the Victorian curriculum authority in the early 90s, but to this day without descriptors (to change in 2014). Brad Haseman’s Dramawise is a great book, indeed, and has certainly stood the test of time (24 years on). I have often considered expanding the above list to include different elements of drama studied in various states of Australia and different countries of the world, reflecting additional elements discussed by yourself and others in the comments to this post. One day soon, I may just get to writing up an expanded list with definitions. As a side note, the new Australian Curriculum has yet another list of slightly different elements of drama for us to digest from 2014 onwards. Thanks for your comment.
thanks helped me for a project
Of course conflict and climax are dramatic elements – imagine a play without them.
I am a high school English teacher in California and needed a tutorial to teach dramatic elements. I am grateful for this website that helped form a class unit.
I’m glad this information has helped you out, Robert. Thanks for your comments.
thanks helped me for a project
No worries, ‘person’!
Just made my assignment in writing lesson plans a thousand times easier. Thankyou very much.
If you’re naturally talented, what qualifies on a list of dramatic elements doesn’t really matter…
Well, that’s not entirely true. Talent may mean that you don’t need these elements to convey a realistic performance to the audience, but these elements are crucial to understanding and interpreting a text. If you rely solely on talent then you won’t be able to expand on your performance skills.
Drama is basically any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.
Surely the conveyance of emotion warrants a place upon the list i.e emotional speaking etc.
use simple language
Put simply, this person thinks that using emotion in the way you act and speak should be on this list, even though it is not an element of drama.
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Thanks a heap, have a test and these are a great help to make me pass thanks!
Thank you very informative.
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Thanks heaps, helps with my exams!
shaffaf im sorry but climax and conflict are very clearly dramatic elements, i have been studying drama for nearly 6 years and these are used all the time, look anywhere man.
climax and confict was very important..i agree with bobbet.. :)..
yes they may be important but they fall under tension…tension of task, tension of relationship, tension of surprise, tension of mystery…they are not elements of drama
I would actually place Conflict and Climax as a subcategory of Tension – they can apply under the idea of Tension of Relationship or Task for both depending on the Situation, which would be part of the Human Context.
thanx so much. this helped me a lot for my drama pro.
this is very helpful as wel as interestin
hmmmm……….climax and conflict are not dramatic elemet, they would fall under human context.
climax and conflict are dramatic elements. And they also fall under English literature.
great websit it’s really helpfull
A great help in condensing great amounts of info. Thanx.
thank u our project will turn out better