Make a good story work dramatically

by Jeff Kitchen

The ability to turn story into drama is the essence of the craft of the dramatist. Making a good story work as a script is about adapting the story for a theatrical performance, whether that’s for the movies, television, or the stage. To render a story dramatic means to make it actable and compelling, with no flat spots. Compelling means that the audience must know what comes next; that you couldn’t pay them to leave before the ending.

Dramatic Writing is the most elusive of all the literary disciplines

Writing a script can sound easy, but dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s slippery, it’s tricky, it’s hard to pin down, and it’s unpredictable. And since 98% of all scripts submitted are fatally flawed and rejected, it’s obviously harder to master than most suspect. Much of this has to do with the demands of making a story work as a performance medium. To dramatize a story, you figure out how to stage it; how to turn it into a series of actions to be performed for an audience.

Consistent coherent compelling Dramatic Action is the name of the game

And because there are many more expert typists than there are trained dramatists, most stories are not structured properly—so that every moment is actable and grips an audience. The name of the game is turning story into drama, turning narrative into consistent, coherent, compelling Dramatic Action. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts; it’s a state of action that you put the audience in, wondering how the story will turn out. It’s about getting them up on the edge of their seats and keeping them there. The actors must interact in such a way that it rivets the audience, otherwise it’s mere information, mere narrative, mere story. “There is nothing more agonizing to an audience than scenes without action,” said William Thompson Price, a Broadway script doctor from a century ago. If a scene is not compelling, then it’s dead in the water, leaving the audience unengaged, with no doubt or expectations—a recipe for failure.

It’s a good story but it’s not stageworthy

And not every story lends itself to being successfully dramatized. In the theater they have a great term for it; they say the story may sound great around a campfire but it’s not stageworthy. It’s not actable and it’s not gripping. Another main problem is that the story idea is weak, so working to dramatize it won’t usually help. Well-structured crap is still crap. But if you’ve got a great story idea and work to dramatize it as you create and develop the story, then the drama will be baked into it as you build it. It’s much easier to custom-build a story for a performance medium than to try to dramatize one already written.

Make each part of your script dramatic

If you can trap your protagonist in a Dilemma of magnitude—caught between two equally painful choices, then you are creating drama from the outset. Any time you can keep the audience in doubt as to the outcome, then you’re creating Dramatic Action. You want to make the overall story dramatic and then make each act dramatically engaging. You want to make each sequence to be gripping on its own, and for each scene to be compelling. In that way, every part of the story is dramatic, with none of it reverting to mere story or mere information. As David Mamet said, “The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to suggest to them what happens next.”

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