Writing Dramatic Scenes - a short tutorial
If we make the analogy that drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and that, as a language, it possesses its own, unique grammar for the construction and presentation of meaningful dramatic actions, then it is not a very big leap to say that every dramatic scene is analogous to a sentence, for like a sentence, the dramatic scene is the expression of a complete idea - a complete DRAMATIC idea. And like a sentence it is composed of a SUBJECT (the character driving the scene), a VERB (the central action of the scene) and an OBJECT or OBJECTIVE (what the character is striving for).
The scene below, from the hit television series, Frasier, provides a simple but vivid example of the way in which the dramatic grammar is expressed in actions in a scene involving two characters: a man and a dog.
Every successful dramatic screenplay presents meaningful (i.e.: emotionally compelling) and identifiable characters and character actions through an interconnected succession of inter-related scenes, which creates sequences ("paragraphs") and acts ("chapters") and ultimately a complete story.
The actions presented are instances of a character's desire to either achieve or attain some objective or goal, or overcome some problem or obstacle that threatens their well-being or plans, or the well-being of whatever they CARE about, which is usually another character or characters. In the Australian feature, Sampson and Delilah, for example, the evolving relationship between the two principal characters is tested by a series of crises that results in one of them committing to the well-being of the other.
Dramatic films - fictional and factional - are driven forward, narratively, by the actions of their characters. Every scene in a dramatic narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end, that evidences a change in the emotional and/or physical circumstances of at least one of the characters. A dramatic scene usually "belongs" to the character that is driving the action of the scene, and whose actions most decisively effect the movement or change that occurs within it; however, the main character of the story is not necessarily the character that will drive every scene, even though that character may be present in every scene.
Echoing the main conflict of the story, the conflict inside each scene is most successful (emotionally meaningful) if it is grounded in a character's over-arching goal or desire, and the frustration of, or threat posed to, that desire by the other characters, or by nature, or both.
A dramatic character is, by definition, a character that is striving for something, or as Michael Shurtleff observed, "a character that is fighting for something".
Striving is only meaningful when it is clear that the goal is worthwhile or when failure to achieve the goal carries dire consequences. There must be risk and the chance of failure for drama to occur. Risk and the possibility of failure occurs most commonly when someone or something opposes the character's best attempts to achieve his or her objective or goal. The ensuing conflict that emerges from this opposition MOVES the character to act, and their actions move them either closer to or further away from their goal. A verbal clash between characters that results in no change whatsoever is not (dramatic) conflict.
Inexperienced screenwriters usually associate verbal altercations with conflict, whereas real conflict is an obstruction to the desire or goal inside the scene. A dramatic goal, by definition, is what is to be won or lost; it stimulates the plans of action enacted by the character to achieve that goal. If what the character wants is given to him/her too easily, the opportunity to build emotional energy through opposition is lost. And if the character merely avoids the confrontation, as is the case in far too many Australian screenplays, the character is rendered passive and emotionally uninteresting.
In successive dramatic scenes, what the main character does and what happens to him or her as a result of what s/he does, is the driving force behind the emotional energies that are being built or released.
In each dramatic scene, a character will do something that brings him/her closer to his/her goal, or propels him/her further away from the attainment of that goal.
Each instance of change effects each subsequent instance of change insofar as it provides the circumstances and conditions what happens next. In this way, dramatic screen story-tellling might be characterised as a cause-and-effect process guided by a series of shots (cuts) that continuously direct the audience's attention to that region of the story (action) that most elegantly and powerfully elaborates the nexus of forces at work in the emotional lives of the characters.
FILM-MAKING as AN EXPERIENCE - reaching into the Unknown
Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment." - John Dewey (Art as Experience)
Borrowing an insight from Henry James’ tender-hearted brother, William, the American philosopher, John Dewey, conceived of aesthetic experience as a "double-barrelled" phenomenon, where experience is characterised by process and content – a doing as well as an under-going.
Experience in this sense is not equivalent to knowledge, for knowing is but one special kind of experiencing. What one does and what one suffers, or appreciates, as a result of what one does, is a cumulative process of reaching into the unknown and permitting the unknown to reach into us.
In working with the unknown, or the unconscious, knowledge is frequently an impediment to discovery; indeed, it may actually stop us from finding anything at all, other than what we already habitually know and have routinely made ours.
There is both comfort and a sense of safety in the nurture of mere knowledge, but it seldom if ever produces pure inspiration. More often than not it provides a handy way of walling ourselves up in a protective cocoon and arming ourselves with unassailable jargon by which we might fend off any attacks, intellectual, personal or otherwise. This castle-keep mentality is often grounded in an anxiety that very frequently is amounts to little more that a fear of change.
Generally, Art cannot afford the luxury of vague, unreconstructed fear. This is not to say that fear is ever completely absent from the creative process, but it must never be permitted to intrude on the work in such a way as to warrant or validate stupidity. The essence of Art is, indeed, the absence of stupidity.
Applying this notion to dramatic screen storytelling, one might say that a successful screen story is the fearless realisation in us – as both storyteller and audience - of a meaningful (emotional) connection or interaction with the strivings of characters. Such an interaction compels identification. Their needs become our needs; their suffering, our suffering. When this arises out of a mutual and active interplay amongst ALL of the characters that contribute to the dramatic action, and respond in kind, the experience one has is no longer simply experience; it becomes - in Dewey's terms - an experience. “In such experiences, “ Dewey writes: "every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues; there are no holes, mechanical junctions and dead centres when we have an experience".
Dewey's words evoke that sense of completeness that is the consummation of the characters' shared and shareable journeys, including the parallel journeys made and undergone by the filmmakers (storytellers), the audience and the tribe/s (all of which are characters contributing to the enactment – and finding - of story).
For a story to consummate in a satisfying way - as opposed to merely ending or ceasing its activities - it must present "courses of action in which, through successive deeds, there runs a sense of growing meaning conserved and accumulating toward an end that is felt as the accomplishment of a process in which we – the characters - have emotionally invested ourselves. In other words, we have to care- all of us! When this occurs, the film story produces that unique quality that Dewey speaks of as an experience.
But an experience is not likely to occur in the finished product if it has not been present within the process that has led to that product.
Drama is founded on action - and in cinema, action is realised through IMAGE and SOUND. Sound and image, however, no matter how loud or explosive, are helpless to achieve dramatic intensity unless they are guided by a fundamental grammar that is organic to the "language" that drama. When stories are informed by this grammar, it is impossible to write characters that don't care or are emotionally neutral. Even if there is a character that appears to be neutral, his/her neutrality will be possessed of a subtext that will provoke or induce consequences that are dramatic. The selection, weight and ordering of the images and sounds in a dramatic narrative convey more than what we actually see and hear. This is why I often speak of cinema as “the art of the invisble”, for it works best when it employs the grammar in such a way as to allow the logic to imply emotions, thoughts and drives that are never literally stated. In allowing the audience a space to act (i.e.: co-create the vision out of the subtext) the story or aesthetic experience of said story prodices that quality of meaning that Dewey refers to as an experience.
A story’s dramatic grammar is something that must be taken into account by all members of the cast and crew, for the apprehension of the emotional logic that gives a story its ultimate and most potent meaning is all but impossible to translate into image and sound without respecting the guiding logic that stands within and behind the emotional life of the characters.
One does not create the logic so much as “listen” to it and act upon what one has “heard”… in the unseen and unstated spaces that are the characters’ complexities and contradictions. In this way the logic operating within the domain of a grammar directs every element of the creative unfolding of the story.
Where this underlying logic is not present, or unheeded, the visual and aural images will not reflect or effect the necessary connections or identifications to enable and maintain maximum shareability of experience, thus causing the story to stall and miss its projected target.
Emotional logic implies emotional intelligence on the part of all of the characters. Emotional intelligence demands that we conceive of drama as more than mere cause and effect. The simple cause and effect of primary experience, in which the clouded and inexplicable actions of fortune and providence are visited upon unknowing heads of passive characters, is transformed by drama and supplanted by a logic of means and consequences which introduce the notion of meaningful activity, in which characters are oriented towards some goal or objective that commands their attention and concern as well as ours.
To invest in the characters means to empathise with them - to be involved emotionally in the journey upon which they are on. Empathy is active insofar as it is a reaching out to receive and share – as one – the tribulations, joys, hopes and dreads of the characters whose journey is also our journey, as storytellers, audience and tribe.
The purpose of dramatic film-making is to create an experience that is transformative. What is important is to understand that the transformations that occur outside the script are just as important as those occurring inside the script, and the characters that act in the story are existentially related to the characters outside the script, namely the storytellers, the audience and the tribe.
Plot = change, as McKee is fond of reminding us, but if one ignores the totality of relationships and the changes effected by these relationships as they evolve through dynamic and dramatic interactions in the process of finding the story, one robs both oneself – the filmmaker – and the audience of the reason one is making a film to begin with.
When we speak or write we tend to use – as a rule – not single words, but groups of words called sentences.
When we make dramatic stories we tend to use – as a rule – groups of actions called scenes.
A SENTENCE is a group of words so arranged as to make complete sense.
A SCENE is a group of actions presented in images and sounds that are so arranged as to make emotional sense.
Sentences can be classified as STATEMENTS, QUESTIONS, DESIRES or EXCLAMATIONS. Note: Some times a question has the same form as a statement: He’s out? It’s broken?
Sentence meanings are often affected or determined by TONE.
Dramatic stories also are made up of scenes that behave as STATEMENTS, QUESTIONS, DESIRES and EXCLAMATIONS, and do not necessarily rely simply on words to make their emotional impact.
A simple sentence can be broken into three parts : SUBJECT, VERB and PREDICATE
A simple scene – when conveyed by way of images and sounds (including dialogue) - is also composed of a SUBJECT, ACTION (verb) and OBJECT (predicate).
The Subject of a dramatic scene is invariably a CHARACTER that is fighting for something. The subject of a scene is always the character that carries the emotional weight of the scene, or whose actions are central to the building or transformation of emotional energy in the scene.
The Verb of the scene is what the character actually does – what is the ACTION employed by the character that dramatises the scene’s emotional meaning and whether the energy builds or is released? Action is the dramatisation of a plan that has been stimulating by a need that is either apparent or will become apparent in subsequent scenes.
The Predicate of the scene is the object of the character’s actions – his/her objective or goal in the scene.
One can analyse and critically examine the meaningfulness of any dramatic scene by investigating the grammar of the scene. Every meaningful (emotionally charged) scene - like every meaningful sentence - will contain a subject, a verb and a predicate. Where even one of these is missing or not clearly conveyed through character actions, the energy dissipates.
Similar to its role in the sentence, the verb – or action – is the most important part of the scene.
Dramatic scenes create CHANGE in the emotional energy of the narrative by way of the actions performed by characters in their quest to achieve their objectives or goals.
Action is the heart and life of the dramatic scene. Without it, a dramatic scene is not possible.
ACTIVE CHARACTERS = ACTIVE SCENES
PASSIVE CHARACTERS = PASSIVE SCENES
An active scene involves what a character actually does to effect change. The action is the expression of a character’s inner emotional state as conditioned by their assessment and understanding the problem or opportunity that confronts them. When characters act we see are ACTIONS.
A passive scene is any scene that merely shows what is or was done to the character in the course of the character avoiding or ignoring the problem and/or opportunity that confronts him/her. Whatever acts upon the character without the character actually striving to achieve his/her goal is an EVENT.
EVENTS, when not responded to actively by a character, tend to dissipate the emotional energy (or meaning) of a dramatic story. They also run the risk of alienating the story’s audience, making it increasingly difficult for the audience to CARE about what is happening to the character.
Active and Passive scenes have their equivalents in active and passive voice.
An active scene occurs when the subject of the scene denotes the doer of the action.
When the subject of the scene is the sufferer or receiver of the action, it becomes a passive scene.
Actions – like verbs - involve moods
Indicative Mood –
a. actions that convey significant information about the characters, their world and important elements of their past
b. actions that raise questions, e.g.: why is this happening? – the creation of mystery.
Imperative Mood –
a. actions that command a reaction from other characters
b. actions that implore solidarity with or sympathy from other characters
c. actions that entreat or beg assistance from other characters
Subjunctive Mood –
a. actions predicated upon suppositions made about another character or
b. actions that convey doubt or anxiety concerning the identity of a character
or the meaning behind their actions.
c. actions that convey a strong desire or wish for something.
Actions can also be understood in terms pf Past, Present and Future.
Every action must take place at some time, either now, or before, or tomorrow.
As such an action that is shown that happens in the past in a FLASH BACK.
An action that occurs in the future – a portent or vision of something that has not yet happened – might be said to be a FLASH FORWARD
Actions occurring contemporaneously with the actual narrative action of the character’s quest are simply PRESENT.
In dramatic storytelling are expressed by the CUT, where one scene ends and the following scene begins. The dramatic conjunction is that interval in which the emotional energy of one scene is transferred or transformed in its movement into the next scene. The relationship of these scenes suggests dramatic information that is not and cannot be conveyed when the scenes are seen separately, not in relationship to one another. The cinematic conjunction is one major feature of the art of cinematic storytelling and a major contributing factor to what differentiates film drama from life-as-lived.
The Primordial Grammar
Drama is a language for presenting emotional energy. As such, it embodies a collection of grammars in terms of which every element of the story can be examined, described, criticised and illuminated. Whenever a story communicates emotionally meaningful energy it necessarily demonstrates the basic principles and processes by which that energy is successfully built and released.
A dramatic story presents energy that moves and transforms in ways that keep its audience inside the action and its effectiveness in this regard is due in no small part to the actions of the characters. In dramatic stories, these actions operate within logical, syntactical-like structures that shape and nuance the confrontations that are taking place.
Issue-based stories referencing situations that are charged with emotions not present in the stories themselves are capable of seducing careless storytellers (and audiences) into believing the stories are more dramatic or meaningful than they are. The seductiveness of “the real” frequently militates against a storyteller’s critical instincts, especially when he or she has an emotional investment in, or attachment to, the subject of the story being told. When the subjective emphasis of content and personal association de-tunes the storyteller’s sensitivity to the story’s grammar, the storyteller is at risk of reading energy into actions where in fact there is no energy at all. This is the essence of propaganda.
The only sure antidote to this fallacious reading (and making) of dramatic stories is to approach and examine the story in terms of its grammar. By looking at the dramatic grammar by which the energies of the story move and interact, the story’s maker and the story’s audience can more usefully identify, explore and assess the relative merits, strengths and weaknesses of the story, scene by scene and sequence by sequence.
As one becomes more fluent in the grammar, one becomes better equipped and more confident in one’s critical examination and appreciation of what is occurring in the narrative, seeing where the energy is coming from and why, and what its impact is on every character in every scene, sequence and act, including those energies that are merely implied or operate between the scenes “in the cut”. The experience of “the cut” is one of the more profound and subtle aspects of plot, and is what separates plot from the story-as-lived by the characters. If, for example a story takes place over thirty years, but the film is only two hours in duration, then we must find the two hours out of that thirty years that energetically conveys the emotional narrative of that span of time. The presence of “the cut” requires us to make inferences based upon what we have seen and heard in one place and seen and heard somewhere else. Something has occurred “in the cut” that we were not party to, which is implied by what comes before and what comes after.
By focusing on a story’s grammar – that is, the story’s energetic, character-driven structure – a story-maker discovers the ways in which drama means and the special syntaxes of dramatic action, image and sound that either facilitate (when present) or obscure (where absent) a story’s power to make us care.
As one becomes more familiar with the grammar one begins to recognise that it has a bearing not only on the ways in which the energy moves, but also the effectiveness of its movement. Indeed, a story’s dramatic grammar is instrumental not only in the creation of viable and absorbing dramatic characters, but also in the promotion an audience’s willingness to identify with them.
When a story’s origins intersect with our own origins, the story’s grammatical soundness – the emotional and syntactical logic by which it means what it means – may be said to cohere to our deepest intuitive understandings concerning our own humanity. Hence, to say that a story is grammatical means that its energy moves in ways that are in keeping with our intuitive understanding of human desire and its frustration, including what is unpredictable and unexpected. Its grammar is its credibility.
The danger in creating or endorsing non-grammatical stories is that one runs the risk of aborting or unnecessarily obscuring and interfering with the significance and flow of emotional energy, which can, in turn, produce the undesired effect of casting one’s audience out of the story. An ungrammatical story is a story that is unable to conjure emotion, and is therefore, meaningless.
Like its grammatical cousin, the sentence, a dramatic scene is composed of a subject (character/s), a verb (action/s) and a predicate or object (the recipient/s of the action); and, like the sentence, aims at expressing a complete idea.
In order to express a complete dramatic idea a scene must also present at least one significant change affecting the emotional energy of the character or characters involved. Such changes affect the movement of the story insofar as every change either propels the character closer to his/her goal or further away from it. The pressure or tension that a character experiences, and the actions that that experience provokes, transform the energy within the scene by either increasing the energy or releasing it. Where change is not present, the story remains static; the scene does NOT advance the story, and the energy dissipates.
A dramatic character is, by definition, someone or something that strives to transform the frustration (or anxiety) inherent in the dramatic problem that he/she or it is facing, in order to enact a healing, or bring about a resolution that will either end or significantly alter or transcend the frustration under which that character is suffering. The key word here is "strives", for a dramatic character is dramatic to the degree that he/she ACTS and, as a result of that action, effects CHANGE.
More often than not, a character is successful in his/her quest (“the happy ending”), but success is never a given, nor should it be. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that successful dramatic stories produce significant shifts in energy that manifest as changes in character, the character’s relationships, and/or the character’s world; and that an essential component of a story’s success is its adherence to a grammar that promotes the building and releasing of the emotional energies through fresh and thoroughly credible character-based actions that enable us, the audience, to care about what is happening.
The fundamental duality expressed in dramatic action is one of emotional connection (empathy, consonance) and emotional disconnection (antipathy, dissonance). Drama results when something that had been connected is suddenly disconnected, broken or interrupted, so that the main character cannot go on thinking, or believing or feeling the same way he/she did before the disconnection occurred.
Disconnection introduces the element of conflict. It is the catalyst that starts the story; or rather the anxiety it produces in the character is what starts the story, by compelling the character to ACT. If the opposition is strong enough, and if we care about the characters, then drama becomes possible.
Dramatic actions are motivated actions – they are the external expressions of a plan directed towards a achieving a clear and identifiable goal. A dramatic character is always a character with a plan – a plan for confronting the problem, not avoiding it. A dramatic character, as Michael Shurtleff has said, is a character that is fighting for something. Hence, dramatic meaning as conveyed by characters ACTING is constituted by a basic grammar that is composed of problems, goals and plans.
Invariably, the initial plan in any dramatic story is doomed. It has to be. If it were to succeed the story would be over. If the story is to build emotional energy then the initial plan cannot succeed. Ironically, the initial plan must produce actions that compound the problem, thus leading the character/s into further PREDICAMENTS that force the adoption of new plans, or even new goals, which, if the story is to continue building energy, will involve greater and greater risks (stakes) for the characters. In other words, the plans that are devised to overcome the problem or assist the character in achieving a newly discovered goal, unwittingly lead to ever-greater problems and threats. Dramatic problems are, by definition, problems that are made worse by a character’s attempts to fix them. A character’s ongoing responses to the problems that his/her plans encounter are what an audience sees enacted as a story.
This is HOW a dramatic story works. This is the basic grammar that informs the formulaic decrees of all those screenwriting gurus from Syd Field to Robert McKee. However, taken on its own, this understanding is virtually worthless. Knowing HOW a dramatic story works is not the panacea it’s cracked up to be; it certainly won’t lead Joan and Joe Screenwriter out of their predictable and all-too-comfortable mediocrity. Strange as it may seem, it might very well lead them ever more deeply into it! Why? Because the knowledge of how drama works provides no assurance at all for the creation of compelling dramatic stories! The screenwriting gurus have been running a con. PROBLEM, GOAL, and PLAN are merely place-markers at the banquet table of dramatic action. It is with those that are sitting in the chairs that we must concern ourselves. In short, it’s the CHARACTERS, stupid! And characters are, by nature, a slippery mob.
 See Audition by Michael Shurtleff.
Feydeau's one rule:
Character A: "My life is perfect so long as I don't see Character B."
SOME SECOND THOUGHTS
Learn to write poetry. Study it. It teaches you how to create evocative and economical prose (emphasis on "economical").
Listen to people speak in conversations, especially how they structure their sentences.
Never use the words "very," "quite," "so" or "really" as adjectives. They're about as effective as a spoiler on a Honda Civic.
Take at least a year of acting. Learn to understand the process. It will do wonders for your character work and give you invaluable empathy for the end-user (if you're going to design a car, it's good to know how to drive).
Never use the word "goes" as a verb. The English language is rich in verbs. Don't squander an opportunity to use a good one.
Never start a block of dialogue with the word "Look" as in, "Look, I love you." Sloppy and ubiquitous. When I hear it, I wince.
Every scene must be a chord, not a note.
In dialogue, don't drop "g" off the end of your verbs to make a character sound "real”. It's distractin'.
Eliminate passive voice. Instead of "John is digging a hole," write "John digs a hole."
Delete adverbs entirely unless absolutely necessary. Especially in parentheticals.
Print your scripts in courier font and stick to standard format.
Avoid using the word "we" as in "we enter the room" or "we're flying over the island." It's cheesy.
Never ever have a character make an inarticulate sound in dialogue, as in: Aaaaarrrrrrrggghhh . Just write "Joe SCREAMS."
Come on. You're a fucking writer. Learn the difference between "it's" and "its," "your" and "you're," "there," "their" and "they're."
"Spell-check" and "Proof-read" are not synonyms.
Learn the difference between text and subtext. If you don't, you have no business writing scripts.
Never trust the copy store, especially Kinkos. Check each page in the copied manuscript for screw-ups.
Back to DRAMATIC GRAMMAR
AND IF THAT WASN'T ENOUGH, HERE'S SOME MORE