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Burke's Five Elements of Dramatism


Disciplines > Storytelling > Storytelling articles > Burke's Five Elements of Dramatism

Scene | Act | Agent | Agency | Purpose | See also


Language expert Kenneth Burke identified a method of analysing the semantic dimensions of language through a five-part 'dramatism pentad' that describes our living stories. Burke said that we choose words because of their dramatic potential, and that we each have preference for particular parts of the pentad.

Burke also noted how you can understand a story or speech by identifying how pairs interrelate, such as the scene-act ratio of Hamlet.


The scene is a 'container', the place where the action of the act occurs. This includes both physical location and the the contextual situation, occasion, event, time.

People who put emphasis here believe that changing the scene changes everything else.


The act is a motivated and purposeful action. It may be a simple, single action, such as moving or speaking, or may be more complex and compound.

The act is an important part of the meaning, thought it is not the whole meaning, even though it may sometimes be thought to be so. The other four parts of the pentad of course also contribute.

The act should align with the scene. A dance in a church, for example is not appropriate, though a wedding is.

In a persuasive sentence, the verb indicates the act.


The agent is the person or group of people who perform in the act. They are the characters in the story, the people who enact the meaning.

Motives, such as hatred, envy and love can also act as agents as 'they' are the moving force that acts. Countries and organizations can also act as agents.

People who focus here believe that you need strong individuals to make things happen.


Agency is the technique or method by which the agent achieve their goals. This may be a sequence of acts encompassed by an idea or principle.

People who focus on agency tend to be pragmatic in life.


The purpose is the reason that the agent acts, the outcome they are seeking from what they do. Sometimes it is obvious and in the open, at other times the agent's purpose may be covert and hidden. Purpose may be layered and distracting, for example where an apparent good purpose cloaks an underlying selfish motive.

See also

Characters in a story, Plots


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