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The terms "plot" and "structure" are often confused. The plot is simply everything that happens in — and sometimes, outside, for example by means of allusion or inference — a story in a narrative or play, that is, events arranged in an order that will make sense to the readers or audience. Structure, on the other hand, is an aspect of the narrative that is composed on three things:

As an example, take Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The plot or story im the play involves two young men who fall in love with young women while pretending to be other people. The play's structure, however, is much more complicated. Wilde arranges the events of the dramatic action in such a way that he keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not the young men will be able to marry the girls. Wilde also causes conflict by creating an improbable situation in which each of the girls says she can love only a man named Ernest. Conflict also arises in the form of Lady Bracknell, mother of the one girl and prospective mother-in-law of the other; as is appropriate to a social comedy, Lady Bracknell has a habit of getting in the way or acting as a blocking figure at the least convenient times.

To involve the audience emotionally in his characters' predicaments, Wilde creates gaps in the story that the audience must fill in for themselves. Although most things in the play are explained by the characters themselves as the action proceeds, things that happened to the characters before the play began are not. Since a dramatist cannot provide explanatory flashbacks as easily as a novelist, the audience is left to fill in the blanks as each member feels is appropriate. For example, what was Mr. Cardew, Cecily's father and Jack's guardian, like? Exactly how dreadful is it to dine with Mary Farquhar? And just what goes on the servants' quarters after all that champagne has been consumed? All of these questions fall into the categories of understood and antecedent action (including, for example, how Jack and Cecily met, and what sorts of adventures Jack and Algernon have had), which are the opposite of anticipated action.

Events that the playwright or author leads the audience or reader to expect, including how the story will end and what will happen after the story ends. In Wilde's play, for example, the audience is reasonably certain — given the expectations of the genre of romantic comedy as developed by Shakespeare and subsequent dramatists — that Jack/Ernest will marry Gwendolyn but wonders what kind of mother-in-law Lady Bracknell will make. How will she behave at the weddings of Jack/Ernest and Gwendolyn and of Algernon and Cecily? Given her dictatorial proclivities, how will these marriages work out? Algernon has said (perhaps acting as the dramatist's mouthpiece) that "a man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it" (124), "it" presumably meaning "married life." Does this remark suggest that as a married man Algernon will create a new, habitually ill friend and continue his Bunburying ways? Will he reform and became an "ideal husband" (the title of another play by Oscar Wilde)? Because these questions about both the antecedent and anticipated action are left unanswered, it is up to the audience to fill in the gaps--and argue subsequently among themselves about the acuteness of their judgments.

Related Material

Victorian Web Thomas Hardy Oscar Wilde Plot and Structure

Last modified 12 July 2006