The question – “is it dramatic?” – is really only another way of asking, is it engrossing? Does the story involve us emotionally? Does it continually cause us to care about what happens next?
When re-writing your screenplay, look closely at every scene. Does each scene have a beginning, middle and end? At the end of each scene is the energy still building or have you allowed it to fall? What are the characters fighting for? What do they care about? And how do we know? Where is the evidence? The most memorable and emotionally compelling characters are often conflicted, multi-faceted, and
Because every dramatic scene is – by definition - driven by the actions of anxious characters, striving for something that carries some kind risk and urgency, the screenwriter must continually ask him/herself: does every scene involve characters that are clearly fighting for something? .Are the objectives of each character clearly in evidence, textually and sub-textually? Also, as a result of the characters striving for change, does each scene present or instance change by way of actions that either propel the characters closer to their goal, or move them further away from it? In other words, does every scene advance the story, and if so, in what way?
What does each scene show us about the protagonist/s and who and/or what opposes or impedes him/her/them? What and where is the evidence for the emotion that is driving them and influencing their choices.
A well-written scene is – in a sense – a story in itself. Grammatically, the scene is the equivalent of the sentence! It has a SUBJECT – a VERB (its action) – and a PREDICATE (the object of the action).
Each scene should be dramatically connected to what has come before as well as organically related to what is about to happen next. Every screenwriter would do well to look at the last image/action of the last scene and the first image/action of the next scene. A great deal of story energy resides in the interval between scenes - "in the cut". Indeed, the cut is another region of rich sub-textual meaning that many writers ignore because they're too preoccupied with the positive capabilities of the story landscape, and overlook or ignore the screenplay's negative capabilities - those spaces where something happens by implication rather than by assertion.
A screenplay presents a story through images and sounds (including dialogue) - its "positive capabilities" - but it also builds and presents emotional energy in those places where meaning is implied. In the ironic expression of dramatic action, one is aware of multiple, simultaneous meanings, all of which in one way or another are informative of the characters’ needs and desires, as well as the frustration of these, and the possible consequences that flow from that frustration. The desire may be for love, for power, sex, or fame, for anonymity, or even the desire to rid oneself of desire.
A desire implies a value. And every desire is the expression, explicitly or implicitly, of a value. Drama occurs when values are in conflict. Dramatic information is information (expressed through actions) that is concerned with conflicting values.
In the best dramatic screenplays, action is conveyed through text, context and subtext. The dramatic information which the audience is able to infer or surmise (subtext and context) is usually much more potent than the information that is simply given (text).
In the writing and re-writing of your script, ask yourself: to what extent does the script allow the audience to participate in the discovery (and creation) of the story? How much is merely told and how much is there for the audience to discover (and imagine) for themselves?
The job of a well-made script is to tell a story in such a way that it permits us - the audience – to participate, creatively.
The job of the script is to inspire! It allows for discovery and surprise. It alludes to and is ironic. It says one thing and means another. It shows one thing, and does another. It is familiar and also unexpected. It lives dangerously through what it conceals. It is a hunting ground for a thousand bodiless voices. It is a dream.
Re-writing is the process of discovering enough of the WHAT and the WHY of the characters so that they can show us HOW the energies work in OUR “story”.
It is impossible to provide a cogent and useful description (or template) that is automatically applicable to the workings of every dramatic screenplay. The only way to learn about YOUR story is to enter into a relationship with its characters, including the audience, the tribe and yourself (the writer/character), and watch and listen to how these characters respond and behave from one scene to the next, and from one draft to the next.
A draft is a meditation, a probe, an inquiry into what is there and why it is there.
It is a way of uncovering and focusing unexplored leads (the hopes and fears of the characters), an exploration into the hinterland of each character’s psyche and the common origins or essences that relate all of the characters to one another.
Listen to your characters; they know more about their story than you do.
A draft is a lure for feeling – a way of enticing the characters and their story out of the darkness, out of one’s unconscious; a way of turning the story over in one’s hands in order to examine what is there and why.
What endures from one draft to next?
What lies at the heart of this story “machine” – this idea-in-the-making?
A re-write is a journey, a vision quest. It is part of the process of getting undone, of undoing one’s habits, beliefs, preconceptions and prejudices. The process of “making” a script begins with a series of prejudices, and ends with a series of revelations.
The re-write challenges us to respect both the character and the situation, to continually look, and look again, at what we have seen/heard, not only in terms of what is actually written but – even more – in terms of what is implied.
Opening scene from the "Nonfiction" section of Todd Solontz's film, Storytelling, provides an excellent example of sub-textual dialogue. Toby looks up an old high-school friend, Pam, with the intention of asking her out. His circumstances are never stated but we can tell by what he says and the way he looks and where he is, what his circumstances are. As he struggles to connect with her and their shared past, with the hope of asking her out, she tries her best to conceal the pain of her memory of him.
YOU TALKIN' TO ME? - Dialogue & the search for syllables to shoot at the unknown http://www.wheresthedrama.com/dialogue.htm
SUBTEXT in Casablanca, Apollo 13 and Raiders of the Lost Ark
DISTRICT NINE : What's That in the Sky? Is it a Spaceship? No, it's a Metaphor! http://www.thelmagazine.com/TheMeasure/archives/2009/08/14/whats-that-in-the-sky-is-it-a-spaceship-no-its-a-metaphor
SOME SHORT STORY EXAMPLES OF SUBTEXT
HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS by Ernest Hemingway http://www.has.vcu.edu/eng/webtext/hills/hills.htm
A JURY OF HER PEERS by Susan Glaspell http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html
HANDS by Sherwood Anderson http://www.storybites.com/Ahands2.htm
THE LOTTERY by Shirley Jackson http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lotry.html
The screenwriter experiences his or her characters coming to life when their actions multiply the characters' possible, credible attributes, including their contradictions. Contradiction is essential for subtext to be present - which means that, in dramatic terms, a character's motivations and actions must be grounded in diverse and incompatible desires and needs. The mere addition of compatible, personal details will not produce this multiplication of meaning, for only part of the life of a character actually exists on the page.
A character’s most profound existence – even at the scripting phase – operates as a creative exchange of understanding between the storyteller and the character, mediated by context and subtext by means of text – but not limited to these. It involves not only those elements of character and story that are fully articulated and materialised, but also those aspects that are vividly implied as a result of the imaginative associations inspired in the mind of the audience by what is stated and shown, as well as whatever is discovered as a result of the storyteller’s willingness to engage with character at a meta-linguistic level.
In terms of story, the multiplication of meaning operates largely as subtext, creating the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual spaces and distances that evoke imaginative leaps and personal, seemingly privileged, observations that promote identification and involvement. Subtext permits an audience to care about what happens. To the extent that the subtext is apprehended, it becomes the audience’s and the tribe’s contribution to the making of the story.
The notion that the multiplication of meaning begins with the storyteller and what the storyteller is able to show or suggest is a vast delusion. The multiplication of meaning is not only a function of the storyteller’s involvement with the characters; it is also a manifestation of the characters’ facility to stimulate discovery in the storyteller, and more specifically, a manifestation of the characters’ willingness to be involved with the storyteller. Stated in a different way – and borrowing a phrase from Pound – the multiplication of meaning is both the cause and the effect of the storyteller’s discovery and affirmation of those unexpected qualities that make a character and the character’s relationship with the storyteller NEW.
The following stories - all of which are rife with subtext - provide some rather remarkable examples of the dramatic potency of effective subtext that stems from the lives of fully realised characters. Most of them have inspired at least one film adaptation. The story by Ms Glaspell, A Jury of Her Peers, was adapted in the early 1980s and made into a short 27-minute film of the same name, which went on to win an Academy Award.
For many years, Hills Like White Elephants was used as a subtext exercise at AFTRS. Students there in the years 2002 to 2007 may remember shooting scenes of it during their first week at the school.
What all of these stories have in common is a wonderful energy that flows primarily from the way in which each embodies a subtext that carries a great deal of the meaning of the story.
NOTE: Click on still photograph above to view the complete film, ONE-EYED JACKS