While successful plays tend to share certain storytelling elements, there is no single blueprint for how a play should be constructed. Instead, seasoned playwrights know how to select the right foundational components for their needs and organize them in a structure that best supports their particular story.

Through his workshops and book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne has helped thousands of writers develop successful scripts. Now, in The Architecture of Story, he helps writers master the building blocks of dramatic storytelling by analyzing a trio of award-winning contemporary American plays: Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, and The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Dismantling the stories and examining key components from a technical perspective enables writers to approach their own work with an informed understanding of dramatic architecture.

Each chapter focuses on one storytelling component, ranging from “Characters” and “Main Event” to “Emotional Environment” and “Back Story.” Dunne explores each component, demonstrating how it has been successfully handled in each play and comparing and contrasting techniques. The chapters conclude with self-evaluation questions to help writers improve their scripts. Each chapter is self-contained, so writers can read the entire guide for a comprehensive view of dramatic structure or use the book as a nonlinear writing reference. This flexible, interactive structure is designed to meet the needs of writers at all stages of writing and at all levels of experience.


The Architecture of Story offers:

  • A technical breakdown of dramatic story into about forty components
  • An underlying focus on character as the root of scene and story
  • Condensed dramatic theory related to each story component
  • Detailed examples of how each component has been used or not used in three successful contemporary American plays
  • Examples from other well-known plays and films, including classical masterworks
  • Questions to help you analyze your own story during writing and revision
  • A unique, nonlinear format that allows you to access chapters, or parts of chapters, in any order and as often as needed to plan or analyze scripts


The University of Chicago Press published The Architecture of Story in April 2016 (224 pages, 6 X 9 © 2016). Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. The guide is available in hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions. Click here to order your copy directly from the publisher.


“Together with The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Dunne’s The Architecture of Story is part of the most thorough course in playwriting available in print, one that is both an in-depth study in character and its relation to dramatic form, and a practical dramaturgical resource for dramatists in search of the best form for their work.”
—Art Borreca
Head of Dramaturgy Program and co-head of Playwrights Workshop
University of Iowa
“The genius of The Architecture of Story is the way in which Dunne manages to embrace both the chaos and the craft of playwriting. His bold, unabashedly nonlinear approach and graceful co-mingling of intellect and impulse, historical perspective and modern reinvention, examination and inquiry, guide us ever closer to a theatrical world that is as singular and powerful as the writer’s own voice. This is a must-have for playwrights”
—Jeni Mahoney
Artistic Director of Seven Devils Playwrights Conference
“Dunne offers the tools playwrights need to create, and improve, what they write. As intuitive an art form as playwriting often is, a writer can find herself frustrated as she attempts to identify clearly what she feels is wrong but cannot necessarily pin down and solve. Dunne’s components and questions will help soothe that frustration, illuminate the problem, and open up potential solutions for the playwright to use.”
—Megan Monaghan Rivas
School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University


About This Guide
The Plays and Playwrights
  • Genre
    Type of story
  • Style
    How characters and events are depicted
  • Dramatic Focus
    Main character and point of view
  • Rules of the Game
    How things work in this particular story
  • Framework
    Act and scene divisions, including French scenes
  • Stage
    Directions Instructions for staging the play
  • Other Script Elements
    What’s in the script besides the play
  • Title
    Meaning and function of title
  • Characters
    Who causes the story to happen
  • Offstage Population
    Who influences the story from offstage
  • Plot
    Synopsis and chain of events
  • Character Arcs
    Character entrances, exits, and transitions
  • Story Arc and Main Event
    Most important thing that happens
  • Subject and Theme
    What the story is about
  • Dialogue
    Language characteristics and indigenous terms
  • Visual Imagery
    How images reveal story
  • Physical Realm
    The setting and what’s in it
  • Emotional Environment
    General mood or atmosphere
  • Social Context
    Key circumstances, values, and beliefs
  • Laws and Customs
    Social rules that affect behavior
  • Economics
    How characters are influenced by money or lack of it
  • Power Structure
    Who is in charge and who isn’t
  • Spiritual Realm
    Presence or absence of the supernatural
  • Backstory
    The past that affects the present
  • Point of Attack
    How the play begins
  • Inciting Event and Quest
    What triggers the protagonist’s dramatic journey
  • Central Conflict
    Key obstacles to the protagonist’s success
  • What’s at Stake
    The protagonist’s reason to act
  • Strategies and Tactics
    How the protagonist tries to complete the quest
  • Pointers and Plants
    Preparation tools to engage the audience
  • Reversals
    Turning points in the story
  • Crisis Decision
    The protagonist’s most difficult decision
  • Climax and Resolution
    Showdown and final destination