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8 INT DRAMATIC GRAMMAR DAY
EXPLICIT AND IMPLICIT DRAMA
The short film is to the feature film what the short story is to the novel. When examined up close, they may seem - apart from length - to be indistinguishable from from the other. Both are composed of sentences and common parts of speech, both are driven by recognizable characters and actions that occur within setting that are usually familiar to us, in which the characters frequently express themselves in direct speech. But despite these obvious and trivial similarities, the short story is about as different from the novel as a haiku is from an epic poem. Indeed, by virtue of its brevity and the way in which it allows us to apprehend its subject, it provides a singularly unique perspective on human experience, include the ways in which human experience is perceived and understood.
A short film is not a miniature feature. It operates by a rather odd sort of logic that, when successful, rarely propels its audience towards the kind of expected and satisfying narrative resolution that so often characterizes longer-form drama.
Often, the resolution of a well-told short-form drama occurs in the mind of the viewer rather than on the screen. When a short film tries to behave like a feature, the result is often contrived, incredible or, even worse, utterly meaningless.
Characters who live happy lives, who are content with their lot, and fully satisfied they have achieved all their goals, are NOT the stuff dramatic stories are made of. At its most basic, a dramatic story is about a character under threat, struggling to resolve some sort of problem, anxiety or difficulty.
In long-form drama, the central problem or difficulty is invariably introduced early in the story, and the character’s struggle to resolve the problem leads to ever more-pressing problems (complications and obstacles) that are accompanied by ever-increasing risk and tension. CHARACTER is understood as an expression of ACTION.
In the short-form drama, the problem and the character form a relationship that leads the audience towards a set of assumptions and expectations (based primarily upon the audience’s prejudices) about what that relationship actually means. CHARACTER is understood as an expression of THEME.
In long-form drama, the dramatic action of the story is played out until the audience is satisfied there is nothing more the main character can do. Hence, the plot becomes EXPLICIT. In short-form drama, the character/problem relationship is re-contextualized or amplified in such a way that it subverts the audience’s beliefs about what the character/problem relationship really means, thus propelling the audience into playing out the drama of the new meaning well beyond the end of the actual film. Hence, the plot becomes IMPLICIT.
A CASE IN POINT
Short-form drama that is successful invariably focuses on the exploration of an idea or issue – usually ONE idea. When well conceived, the idea carries both intellectual and emotional content. In serious drama, the idea tends to weigh more heavily on the emotions; whereas in comedy it engages the intellect.
In the short film, like the feature, the initial action revolves around establishing the character/s and his/her/their world. Within this world there is the manifestation of a human value or ideal, something hoped for, or a desire, perhaps, or an attitude or sense of connectedness with which the audience engages. In long-form drama, this value or belief or desire is presented at the beginning of the story and is soon sub-rated or interfered with by the imposition of an opposing force (the catalyst or disturbance), usually personified by another character (an antagonist) or by nature. This results in the main character hatching and carrying out a plan of action – which necessarily involves ever-increasing risk to the character - to overthrow the opposition in the hope of re-storing some degree of balance and order. How the main character deals with the obstacles and complications that stand between him/her and his/her goal ultimately leads to a resolution that is either positive (the goal is achieved) or negative (the goal is not achieved).
In traditional short-form drama, the catalyst and the quest to re-establish equilibrium is de-tuned or replaced altogether by the dramatization of a thematic idea or issue that MEANS something to the character and the audience. The audience’s association and/or identification of this idea or issue with that character’s persona – his/her anxieties, desires and needs – conditions and informs the audience’s emotional understanding of the character and his/her world. The character is THAT character by virtue of his/her relationship to THAT idea/issue; and that idea/issue is precisely what it is (and means what it means) because of its association with THAT character/world.
Take Birthday Boy as an example – an excellent and altogether satisfying manifestation of the formal dramatic behaviour one finds in traditional short-form drama that works. In Birthday Boy, we are presented with a young Korean boy, growing up among the detritus of war. He constructs his toys out of the remnants of wrecked fighter planes, and shapes them to his needs using the trains and tracks upon which tanks are being sent to reinforce a faceless army. The idea at the heart of the action concerns transformation – how a child in his playfulness and imagination can transform the horrors of war into something that creates happiness and a degree of absorbed contentment. The dramatic issue is the transforming energy of playfulness and the imagination that inspires it.
The change – the dramatic change – occurs when a package arrives on the boy’s front porch. It is the boy’s birthday – we know this from the title – and the package he presumes is a birthday present. Tearing off the paper and opening the box, he discovers items from his father – an army cap, some boots, some old photos of himself with his father in happier times. And suddenly, it dawns on us. This is not a birthday present at all, but rather the worldly possessions of the dead father, killed in action, being returned to his family. We also realize that the boy, himself, because of his age and innocence, is unaware of this. As he plops the cap on his head and marches gleefully around in the over-sized boots, we realize he is continuing to play out the meaning of the old idea – the transformation of war into something more playful, more childlike. Then his mother, arriving home from work or shopping, calls out, and we realise what must happen.
Dramatically, the arrival of the mother is the coming catalyst for change that will change everything: the knowledge of his father’s death, the other meaning of the package; and we are left with the unasked, but profoundly felt question, what will the boy do with this part of the war? How is it possible for these objects of his father’s, and what they signify, to be changed – like the spare parts of wrecked fighter planes – into something that transcends pain and destruction? Suddenly, in this unasked question, we come face-to-face with the emotional confrontation that waits so unexpectedly for the boy in the familiar and seemingly benign yet loving form of his mother. And we know – with a sense of growing tension, that the knowledge he is about to receive will change the boy forever.
The wonderful thing about this film, and about all short-form dramatic films that work, is how the story goes on playing itself out in the mind of the audience even after the film has ended. Propelled by the contrast between the original meaning of the film’s thematic idea, and what that idea has come to mean as a result of the change that has taken place, the audience moves past the conclusion of the plot into an untold future, that is the continuing story, enacted in the invisible realm of pure imagination.
Explanations establish islands, even continents, of order and predictability. But these regions were first charted by adventurers whose lives are narratives of exploration and risk. When the less adventuresome settlers arrive later to work out the details and domesticate these spaces, they lose the sense that all this certainty does not erase the myth, but floats in it.
A dramatic story presents an identifiable character (or characters) in pursuit of understandable and emotionally logical objectives. In the quest to attain his/her objectives, the dramatic character encounters increasing opposition and risk that carry with them even greater stakes, thus heightening the audience's identification and emotional involvement with the character.
Collaboration is a largely intuitive and mutually respectful, creative interaction among skilled individuals working towards a common goal based upon a shared understanding of the nature of the work in which they are engaged.
Given the nature of dramatic stories and the collaborative character of dramatic, screen storytelling, WHERE'S THE DRAMA? posits that filmmakers and film crews have a better chance of succeeding when their actions are guided by a "common understanding" of the nature of the work and the play in which they are engaged. This common understanding is constituted by - though not necessarily limited to - the following:
Dramatic stories are structured presentations of emotional energy that involve characters whose incompatible agendas produce disconnections or conflicts that create meaningful and often substantial risk for the characters’ well being, forcing them to act in the hope of re-establishing some degree of order or control.
The rhythmic and proximate interplay of these conflicting agendas is enacted by characters and is the source of a story’s emotional energy.
A dramatic story proceeds by either building or releasing this energy.
These two elemental tendencies – the building and releasing of emotional energy – are what characterize the movement of all dramatic stories.
A story’s power is proportional to its effectiveness in building and releasing energy in ways that are fresh, unexpected and thoroughly credible.
When a story stops building energy, or is unable to effectively release it, the energy dissipates, which is another way of saying the story becomes undramatic.
Regardless of form, effective storytellers will have a passionate interest in the source, manifestation and transformation of this energy, i.e.: the characters and their actions.
In mastering the language that IS dramatic screen storytelling, the collaborative team of storytellers and their characters become partners in finding the emotional meaning of the story that is to be told.
This partnership also includes the audience and the tribe or tribal groups whose story is being found and shown. In a sense, ALL of the participants, including the filmmakers are characters.
The presentation of characters internal to the script is mediated by the capture of images and sounds relevant to those characters, their world and the dramatic questions that the characters’ problems cause us – as both storyteller and audience – to ask.
All effective dramatic screen stories proceed via the building and the strategic release of emotional energy conveyed through these images and sounds.
Essential to the effective rendering of dramatic screen stories is the compelling selection and ordering of these images and sounds, as guided by the emotional energy generated by the actions of the characters.
A screen story that is dramatic and effective produces fresh, unexpected and credible images and juxtapositions of images by which this energy is built and released.
The finding and the capture of fresh, unexpected and credible images and their juxtaposition is made more possible when the filmmaker/storytellers are working from inside the emotional life of the character.
The images should serve the story, not the other way around.
Therefore, all craft questions are implicitly questions about character and story.
THE PRE-EMINENCE OF CHARACTER
Meaningful dramatic action is, by definition, an expression of a character’s problems, goals and plans. The changes that occur within any dramatic story are the actions of that story, and are predominantly manifested by a story’s characters. A story begins and develops when a character first creates and then transforms or transfers emotional energy. This should happen in every scene, and from one scene to the next, and even between scenes (in the cut). The source of this energy is CHARACTER, hence the success or failure of every dramatic story is inextricably bound up with character, into which, through which and from which the emotional energy of any story is constantly rushing.
(1) E.g.: Coverage implies an understanding of a character’s actions, and the meaning of each scene in which a character acts... remembering that characters also live (and ACT!) in the cut.
THE HOLY CHORE
“Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you…a writer always writes. That’s what he’s for. And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place. And if they close off all the bazaars then by God go and work with your hands till you can write, because the talent is always there. But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done. Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.”
— Harlan Ellison