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.