The Screenwriter's Column
THE PRINCIPLES OF DRAMA
It's a lesson worth learning early: there's more to successful drama than
just a string of vaguely related sequences.
Stories are how we understand the world. An encounter with a surly bus
driver that we relay to a friend at lunch, a fairy tale we read to a child in bed, Tolstoy's
epic historical novel War and Peace - all these are narratives that explain some part of
our world to ourselves, that help us define the struggles of a daily commute, the unseen forces
a child confronts, and the tribulations of war in a Russian winter.
To more completely understand these events, we may even have to invent
details that make the story "work better." The bus driver is a true sadist; forests feel alive
because of unseen spirits; armies are driven to folly the same way lovers are. We'll invent
whatever we have to in order to make our stories make sense. Only if stories make sense can we
make sense of our world. Telling stories may be an essential existential act. We tell stories
to define our world in causal, temporal terms we can understand. And maybe, at some level, we
have to tell ourselves stories to prove to ourselves that we exist.
Stories are told in simple jokes, oral sagas, ancient texts, live
performances and in visual recordings. But stories aren't always transferable across different
media. Just because a story can be "told" or written or acted out in a dance or pantomime
doesn't mean it lends itself to a filmic telling. Every day filmmakers start shorts and
features that are misconceived and doomed because writers don't understand the underlying
principles of drama. These filmmakers believe assembling a string of incidents - a character
does this and goes here, then meets another character, and something else happens - will somehow
create a dramatic story. This may be the case in writing a short story or novel
because incidents can be shaped and framed by the author's voice in the narrative. But even in
filmic stories where narration is fundamental to the storytelling, drama requires more than the
sum of a number of incidents.
So let's consider these principles of drama, define them and understand
their application in creating a story that will work in film. By drama, I mean works written for
performance, serious or comedic, on stage, film or television.
The Principles Of Drama
Drama relies on two important rules. There must be: 1) a character (the
protagonist) who will take action to achieve something, and 2) this character will meet with
conflict. The level of conflict can be subtle or strong, but must be apparent. If film stories
do not have a basis in these two fundamental rules, they will not work.
Drama needs characters who desire, who want, who need, and who will act
(even if the action is reactive, or centered around avoidance of action or reaction). This kind
of character will drive a story forward and provide an understandable framework for the story's
action. Conflict builds the tension that keeps the audience interested in what happens next.
These two ideas work together to create a context for the story's information so an audience
that is seeing and hearing a story instead of reading it will understand what's going on.
This is the key point. The audience is viewing, not reading - a
completely different mode of understanding. Film, as with theater and music, is a temporal art
form. It communicates its content within a precise time span. The audience must be able to
process the information and make meaningful connections to understand it. Drama drives home its
information differently than narrative prose. The obvious example is how in book an important
thought in someone's mind can be written for the reader. In film, especially if voiceover
narration isn't used, screenwriters must externalize what characters feel and think, and this
can be extremely difficult. As film has become more naturalistic, it has left behind most
theatrical conventions such as asides, monologues, chorus, etc., and instead relies on authentic
behavior to convey the sense of realism the audience expects.
Reading is an "active" activity while viewing is a passive one. The
bookworm actively reads the words on paper, making the decision to keep turning pages or not.
Stories can be picked up and read at will while films play out in specific duration (though
DVD-viewing may eventually alter how we watch drama). With film, viewers sit and watch as
action happens before them and screenwriters have to work harder to hold their interest with the
activity itself. With a book, the voice of the narrator can lead readers through the material,
making leaps and connections through what is really a commentary on the action. Tension and
meaning can be created by what the writer tells the readers. And if readers don't understand a
passage, they can re-read it until they do. But in film, the action must develop in a way that
is clearly understood as it happens, and builds tension so the audience stays interested.
This is where conflict and a character's desire come in. Screenwriters use
specific actions growing out characters' wants, needs and objectives to keep the audience clued
in to the story line - the plot. On the most superficial level, every story is about the quest
to attain a goal and whether a character will achieve it or not. Conflict casts doubt on the
character's ultimate success and increases our interest. Conflict creates stress and trouble we
want to see resolved.
If we have no clue as to what a character wants and where a story's heading,
we tend to lose interest because we don't understand the primary connections between the actions
enough to assign meaning. If the action is mere activity or characters simply talking about
their ideas, feelings or what's going on, little tension develops and again the audience starts
to lose interest.
But let's not stay in the theoretical. Let's get practical. Anyone who has
ever directed a scene will tell you the first things the director and actors must find in the
material are what each actor wants (in the scene and overall) and the source of the conflict.
Without scene objectives and conflict, tension never develops, the scene falls flat, actors
flounder and the audience yawns and heads for the doors. Try this simple directing exercise with
the dialogue below and find out yourself. Corral two actors for the parts of A and B, and read
B: Hello. Do you know what time it is?
A: No. What time is it?
B: It's one AM. Where
have you been?
A: Out walking... walking and thinking.
B: Thinking about what?
A: About what happened.
B: What about it?
A: I don't know. G'night.
B: Good night.
Without any context, the lines are flat and not very interesting. But if
you create a dramatic framework, find the conflict between the characters in contradictory
objectives the lines will come to life. Say, A and B are lovers who have had a fight. B has to
go home because his father is very sick. A wants to go, too, but B doesn't want her/him along
because of a troubled relationship with the family and he's unsure of his feelings for A. B
wants A to accept his decision without laying on the guilt. A senses that B is pulling away,
but wants B to take her/him along. A is hurt and suffering, and isn't going to make it easy on
B. Now have the actors read the lines and see what happens.
If you've done this right, you should see that once purpose and conflict
have been added to the scene, it becomes more interesting. You can take this further by delving
into the emotional subtext of the scene and giving the actors specific actions and emotions for
each line that then demands an emotional reaction from the other actor. B might be dismissive
and condescending to A's real pain and suffering, provoking A to deeper pain or anger.
The point is the lines take on greater meaning when given direction and
conflict that allows for emotional response. Narrative films need action and conflict to frame
the important ideas the writer's concerned with and make them compelling to the audience. By
understanding the special properties of film - this visual medium of images and sound - and
using these dramatic principles of action and conflict to evaluate an idea and shape a story,
writers can save time and energy in choosing which stories to develop into screenplays.
When in doubt, choose to write those stories that have the most conflict -
conflict that comes from opposition a character faces in trying to achieve a clearly defined
goal. Think of a story like the Wizard of Oz, one we all know from childhood. Long
before the conflict Dorothy faces in trying to get home after the tornado, she faces the real
drama of finding, hiding and then losing her dog to a real opponent. She also takes a bad fall
off a fence into a pigsty, and has to suffer the financial hardships faced by her aunt and uncle
(which contribute to her losing Toto).
Casablanca starts with a bang and murder as German couriers lose the
vaunted Letters of Transit that everyone wants. The film throws Rick into the middle of the
conflict as he holds the Letters and tries to run his saloon without getting involved. Conflict
swirls about him until he's faced with Ilsa, and then it draws him into its center and gives him
a very real goal. Citizen Kane introduces the mystery of Rosebud as the key to
understanding Charles Foster Kane's life - but the film's real inciting incident comes in the
sequence that shows a young boy lose his home and family. And ironically, isn't this what
"Rosebud" is all about?
Is it just coincidence that our best-loved movies are those that begin with
protagonists caught in situations rife with conflict that demand they act? Their actions focus
on goals they pursue. Is it any wonder that the characters' goals - returning home only if it's
with Toto; the real and psychological freedom to leave Casablanca; the security of a snow
day at home - are those the heroes spend the entire movie trying to obtain? Is there a message
for us dramatists here? Maybe our initial goals and obstacles never really change?
Or is this just a story we tell ourselves?
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