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July 24, 2012

Notes from The Structuralist: How Structure Helps Your Work


If you were building a house, would you put up the brilliant blue shutters before you laid the foundation? Such a house would not stand. Similarly, when you pour your voice – however brilliant – upon the page unframed, you create something that cannot hold together.

When playwrights first work with me, they are often opposed to structure. They associate structure with compromise, commercialism and conventionality — the three dread Cs. They want their writing to be unfettered, free and open to inspiration from the muse. They want to find their unique voice.

Your voice is the thing I cannot teach. Structure is what I can impart. Study the works of the greats and you find principles that support and frame. Chekhov and Ibsen, Miller, Williams and O’Neill, Nottage, and Baitz all employ structural principles. Even seemingly expressionist works like Beckett’s breathtaking Waiting for Godot are built, not exuded.

To make art, we select – from the infinity of possible impressions and realities – only that which creates the particular reality we envision. Art is clarity. The character who is everything cannot be anything. The play that is everywhere cannot be anywhere.

If you don’t agree at first, consider this: how long have you spent on any given play? Do you feel in control? Do you have the sense of knowing what you’re doing? What response have you gotten from people who are not friends and family? Do you hold the reins of your work, or is it always running away from you?

When I work with new and emerging playwrights, they have often written four, five, six drafts of a play. They loved writing at first but now feel tired and confused. How to choose the next scene? How to know what dialogue is right? Is there a way?

The word “playwright” ends like any other profession that moves, turns, carries things: cartwright, wheelwright, shipwright…practice on the wheel before attempting the whole cart.

– Bryony Lavery

What is the structure of a well-crafted play?

Your first decision is this: Who is my protagonist? Who is the most important character? If you are not sure, stop. Make that decision. Your play must be unequivocally, truly, and steadfastly about one person above all others. But how do you know who that is?

Your protagonist begins with the greatest need: a need so profound, it’s a matter of life and death (if not of the body, of the soul). Hamlet needs to live in a just world. Mama Nadi needs redemption. Bess needs to be fully alive. Willy Loman needs dignity. Gregers Werle needs a reality stripped of lies.

I call this foundational need the DDD: Deep Driving Desire. Your protagonist and his or her DDD are the foundation of your play. The foundation supports and upholds the play, page by page, scene by scene.

When you decide your protagonist’s DDD, write it on a sticky note, and stick it on your computer or wherever you write. Refer to that note whenever you are unsure or flustered. Are you writing of your protagonist’s DDD—her Deep Driving Desire? Or has the horse run away with the Writer?

For my most recent work, I wrote this on my computer: “Mick needs to live in a just world.” This is a strong desire and a worthy goal. It’s something we all care about. (The single most frequent comment that agents and producers make is: “Why do I care?”)

Now look at this. You know what Mick needs: his single strong DDD. This is Mick’s intention.

What will Mick say and do to get it? These constitute Mick’s action. Action = Plot.

Mick needs to live in a just world (intention). He vows that he will not allow any of his friends to go to war (action). Hamlet needs to live in a just world (intention). He lays a trap to discover who murdered his father (action).

Please note that Mick and Hamlet have the same DDD. One DDD can lead to a thousand million actions. The actions you choose are your story. They form the framework of your play.

Once you know your protagonist’s DDD, you can outline the actions she will take to accomplish her intention. You can write with surety and a rudder. Look at the framework. See if it stands. See if it moves. See if it takes your protagonist from DDD to having gotten what he needs — or not.

See how beautiful this is? Structure is beautiful for writer and audience. Follow this column for a monthly lesson on structure in playwriting. Happily (and perhaps surprisingly), you’ll find that structure opens the floodgates of creativity.

For a free exercise on How to Recognize your Protagonist, write Diana at

Visit to get valuable insights into structure, playwriting and all storied writing. Diana is Director of Writer Programs at Theater Resources Unlimited ( and a published, produced, awarded and critically acclaimed playwright. She initiated the Master Playwriting Course at the Writer’s Voice in New York where she and partner Charlie Schulman took the radical step of producing works by students. Diana teaches Practical Playwriting at TRU and coaches playwrights on a selected basis.