Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dramatic Need

There are some scripts that you open up and by page two, you’re really struggling to get into the flow of the piece. And by page fifteen, you’re bored. By page thirty, your attention has wandered to something else entirely unrelated to the story.

There are a host of reasons why a reader doesn’t engage with a story. It could be that the genre doesn’t interest them, or they’re in a bad mood, or they’ve just read something similar, or maybe the writing just stinks, but more often not it’s usually down to one glaring element: dramatic need.

Establishing dramatic need as early as possible is a huge benefit to a script’s opening tone and pace. It gives the story an instantly accessible hook, and the reader’s interest is easily secured on the page. Of course, there are other ways to ensure that a script begins, and continues, in an inviting fashion (good writing style, interesting visuals, intriguing mood etc) but by introducing a character’s dramatic need, it immediately puts their characterisation and story needs at the forefront of the drama.

So what is dramatic need? Basically, it’s what a character wants. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be what the story’s about. There are a few ways to establish dramatic need at the beginning of a script.

1. Dramatic Need of a Scene
Giving a character a basic desire or goal during a scene helps to crystallise and clarify the drama and subtext on offer. There may be a whole bunch of unconnected scenes before the script gets to the ‘inciting incident’ but that doesn’t mean that the story can lapse into indulgent characterisation and moody set-pieces. Every moment on screen is precious and is conveying information/plot to the audience. If the scenes don’t deliver on their basic promise of drama or satisfy the audience’s primary objective to be engaged, then it’s unlikely the scenes justify their inclusion. Adding a dramatic need to the even most innocuous of scenes helps to enrich characterisation, provide humour and/or add a human depth to the proceedings.

2. Dramatic Need of a Sequence
Probably the best opening to a film, ever, is Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is trying to locate, and then keep, a cherished idol. It establishes dramatic need - Indy wants the idol - and then gives him a whole set of dangerous obstacles to overcome. These are mini-needs, if you will, where he must use his instincts and knowledge to triumph every challenge (the pit, the light, the stepping stones, the idol, the boulder, the tribe, the villain). The sequence does so, so, so, much more than just give us great adventure. It tells us everything we need to know about our hero in purely visual terms.

Raiders is a great example of how to establish dramatic need for an adventure story but what about if it’s for a thriller, drama or comedy? What do they do? Picking a few titles at random, and if my memory serves correctly: Wedding Crashers establishes Owen Wilson’s dissatisfaction with the wedding circuit. The Godfather establishes Marlon Brando’s sense of family and his willingness to protect them, and his business, at all costs. Memento introduces us to Guy Pearce’s obsessive search for his wife’s killer.

3. Dramatic Need of a Story
Establishing the protagonist’s main dramatic need is sometimes a good way to go. It introduces what the film is about up front (and may be dramatised in a flash-forward or something similar) before going on to detail who the character is, what the other characters are doing and where the film is set. Instant engagement, the story is moving, and the audience is interested. Banzai. Memento (again if my memory serves, I haven’t seen it in a while) is a good example of this as it introduces us to Guy Pearce and what he wants but also adds the intrigue of seemingly telling the story backwards because of his short-term memory loss.

Dramatic need. It’ll keep you up at night. Ultimately it’s about keeping the story moving, interesting and engaging. Establishing the right flow and pace to the proceedings, and using your storytelling ability to ensure that there’s constant drama on the page to keep the audience on their toes.

5 comments:

Lucy said...

Tony Jordan reckoned Kat Slater's dramatic need was to be Felicity Kendal in THE GOOD LIFE...He then had to ensure she never got near it by flinging absolutely everything in her path. I always remember that when trying to establish a character's dramatic need. Whether it works in getting ME to be as successful as TJ in establishing it is another story ; )

Danny Stack said...

This from Stephen Gallagher as the comment section was not working earlier.

"This is probably at its starkest -- and seen at its rawest -- in American TV, where the pressure is to secure the audience's commitment to the coming story in the two minutes or less before the opening credits.

It's hard as a writer to hit the ground running like that, but on the other hand it's not engaging for the audience to have to watch you getting up to speed as you write your way into the characters and their world.

I remember hearing David Puttnam in a lecture somewhere making a comparison between British and American screenwriters. British version: a man wakes up in the morning. Goes down to breakfast. We see his house, we see his life, we meet his wife. They talk about what he's going to do that day. He says he's going to the woods. She warns him to look out for snakes. He shaves, dresses, drives the kids to school. There's something on the car radio about snakes in the woods. He calls his boss, says he'll be late for work because he has to call by the woods on the way. His boss chews him out about some big order they have to get fulfilled. He arrives at the woods, gets out of his car, looks around...

(You get the idea)

American version: This guy's walking in the woods and a snake bites him in the ass.

I don't buy the whole English/American thing, but I do think the storytelling point's spot-on.

There's a harsh but effective craft solution -- write what you need to write, but then cut what the audience doesn't need to see."

Dom Carver said...

I had the dramatic need for an X-box 360... I gave in today ;-)

Vera said...

It's kind of obvious but put into words as clearly as this helps immensely - thanks, Danny! For me it also provides some balance to what I like to call "inciting incidentitis" - if your script doesn't have that big bang by page 10, it gets tossed... but sometimes your story simply needs more time for setting up, and then the dramatic need comes in very handy.

rjjm said...

Aaah! Love this post! It's like a light came on. @Lucy - that description of Kat Slater's dramatic need is amazing. It's been a while that I've enjoyed reading the comments on a blog post as much as the article itself.