the Screenwriter's Column

The Principles of Drama

By Linda Cowgill

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.

Practical Application

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 the lines.

A: Hey. 

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?