One of the most important things you need to do when developing your story is to locate where the drama of the idea is. This can sometimes be harder than it seems.
First, I should probably define what I mean by drama. There’s an old saying: “Drama is conflict.” This is true – people getting along and being successful isn’t very dramatic.
Therefore, movies with villains have an obvious source of drama. Much of the conflict is going to come from the battle between the hero and the villain. But if that’s all you do the movie will be superficial and uninvolving. It could even get boring – despite intense action scenes!
So drama has to be more than just conflict. It has to affect character. This is part of what I’m getting at when I discuss the need to tie the internal and external character journeys together. Conflict only becomes dramatic when it affects a character we care about on an emotional/psychological level. Therefore I think it’s better to define drama as the emotional compelling conflict in your story.
Look at this summer’s biggest hit: The Avengers (story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, screenplay by Joss Whedon). The obvious conflict is between the Avengers and Loki. Structurally, the dramatic question is, “Can the Avengers defeat Loki?” That’s important, but it’s not why this was one of the most well-liked superhero movies.
The filmmakers realized that the real drama of the movie was between the superheroes themselves. The richest emotional conflict came from the clashes between the self-involved, arrogant Iron Man and the selfless, self-righteous Captain America. Then they added the paternalistic, stubborn Thor and Bruce Banner’s reluctance and suspicion. The more compelling question for the audience was whether these characters could overcome their differences to defeat a common enemy.
Writers most often fail to identify drama when they get seduced by an arena, a character or a theme. An arena is a story world that may be inherently interesting, at least to the writer – a post-apocalyptic future, the fire department, illegal immigration. These are good arenas to find a dramatic story, but they are actually not in themselves dramatic. The same is true when you come up with an interesting character – it’s a good starting point, but you need to place that character in a dramatic story. Theme usually becomes a problem when the writer feels passionate about a specific idea – faith, the environment, the nature of power – but hasn’t found the proper story to explore that theme.
True stories can provide particular pitfalls. Real life is messy and disorganized. When you hear a true story that interests you, it’s important to be able to locate the drama so you can organize the story in a way that’s narratively compelling. This will make it easier to cut out those details that don’t support the drama.
Take the semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) about a high school kid who gets the opportunity to go on the road with a rock band. It has a great arena – rock and roll. It has an interesting character (William) – a sheltered, exceptionally intelligent kid with a passion for music. And it has a tried and true theme – coming-of-age. But none of that guarantees drama. It would be possible to write a very boring version of this movie where William just follows the band from town to town observing their shenanigans.
Fortunately Cameron Crowe is a talented writer and located the drama in his own experience. First of all, William has a job to do – write a story for Rolling Stone – and the most important member of the band is not cooperative. Ah, conflict! Plus, in order to write a good story, William has to be “truthful and merciless,” but he worships these rock stars. Internal conflict! The drama of the story is whether William will overcome his hero worship, crack his unwilling subject, and deliver a successful article.
Identifying the drama is particularly important to the pitching process. I often hammer home the idea that “plot is the enemy of pitching.” One of the problems writers often have in a pitch is that they treat every plot beat as equal. As a result, they end up burying the drama under piles of minor detail. Or, they spend an inordinate amount of time describing their arena or their theme without locating the dramatic elements that make any of it matter.
Once you’ve identified the drama inherent in your story, you next have to figure out how to show it to the audience. In other words, you have to dramatize the drama. This requires creating scenes of conflict between characters where the outcome determines the direction of the story. It’s not enough to have the characters simply talk about the conflict. We have to see it. (Read my post on Show, Don’t Tell for more thoughts on how to do that.)
So whether you’re developing a pitch or a screenplay, spend some time locating the drama of your story. Where does the conflict come from? How does it affect your character? Most importantly, what are the scenes that are going to show this to the audience? Make sure you keep these things front and center.