Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dramatic Action

I've been working really hard the last few months to craft plots with a lot of dramatic action, so I thought I'd share with you all and hopefully learn a few things from the collective intelligence I've been hearing so much about. This part is Writing 101, so please bear with me if you are, like, waaaaay past this in your work. :-)

Dramatic action describes the story beats that relate the plot. This is different from things that establish factual things about the character (e.g. he's married), or things that establish motivation or need (e.g. Reese's story in The Terminator confessing his reason for traveling through time). Dramatic action primarily concerns itself with conflict, specifically, conflict that generates action, i.e. plot.

For instance, in television, dramatic action is generally compressed (e.g. those short teasers in L&O that set up the crime), expressed in dialogue (like when characters talk about how angry so-and-so's off-screen behaviour makes them -- Aaron Sorkin is the master of this type of drama as I have yet to see anything actually happen during one of his shows), or elided (as in two characters prepare for the "Big Raid," then we cut to the aftermath of the raid).

In contrast, film stories are comprised of the most dramatic action you can find, bits that exemplify the protagonist's emotional journey. I'll go back to my favorite film LA CONFIDENTIAL for an example here. The open of the film establishes the main players and the film's themes through a jail riot (the Bloody Christmas scandal). From here on, the viewer can anticipate Exley's bulldog response when he discovers the inconsistencies in the Nite Owl murders and that he will be uncompromising in his pursuit of the truth, no matter the cost, as well as each of the other core cast members' emotional responses to the rising tide of shit that is at the heart of the film.

Dramatic action invests the viewer in the emotional journey of the story. It is the most difficult thing to master, and typically, the most dynamically evolving tool in the craft arsenal. It requires an attention to human psychology and a sense of spectacle. The writers who tend to make the biggest splash in the spec world are those who have an inherent sense of dramatic action -- not just what story to tell, but also the best way to show the story as they are telling it. These writers are adept at creating a voyeur out of the viewer (mmm, my literary criticism theory slip is showing here, sorry).

So, in short, I'm struggling to find some decent dramatic action to tell the story I'm writing. I like things that are visual, require the core cast to take dramatic action that will serve to reveal their motivations and strengths/weaknesses, and since I'm shoring up the bottom of the second act, I find that I've been going back into the first act to remove information that is revealed too soon, and planting "mini-beats" that foreshadow the big plot turn I have planned for my little people.

I'd love to hear alternate/opposing view points to all of the above, and, of course, anyone who wants to share their wisdom is welcome to do so. Toodles.

P.S. The pic is from the NY TIMES' excellent article on photojournalist Enrique Metinides, a Mexican photog who specialized in death, gore and other sensational images. I'm putting the coffee table book on my wish list today!


carrie said...

glad you're back! with regards to the Mexican photog you were mentioning-- i've been feeling (way behind the times, i'm sure, as i live in new england) this zeitgeist-y attraction to all things mexican lately. have a story that i'm thinking of setting in Mexico and a Texas border town-- do you think these settings would further reduce the already miniscule chances of selling a first time spec script? thank you for any advice!

wcdixon said...

Really hard to comment constructively without knowing any details, but get what you're saying. That said, it seems a little off to hear you say you are 'struggling to find some decent dramatic action to tell the story I'm writing'...

It should already be there - keep the best bits, toss the boring bits out.

Have a happy holidays.

Icaterus said...

I've never actually heard someone define 'dramatic action' before... I've heard it said of course, but I don't think I've really heard the meaning of it.

But I think the one thing you missed out is rising action. You didn't mention that dramatic action has to rise and become more intense as the plot progresses.

I hope you work out your story :)

Unk said...

Like Will says, hard to know how to comment without knowing the story but suffice to say...

I agree that you must have dramatic action however, my opinion is that the dramatic action but be based on the decisions that your characters make, thereby revealing a little more of their character/personality and eventually, affecting a charcter arc.


Whenever I've having problems coming up with JUST THE RIGHT DRAMATIC ACTION, I ALWAYS go back to the characters.


They will GUIDE you through the right dramatic action if you let them but you have to know them extremely well.

Every time I "think" I know my characters well enough, I find out that I don't and I always have to go back and get to know them better by going over their bios and creating even more past and backstory on them.

After doing this and taking a day or so for that new influx of information to gel, I go back to the script and the dramatic action comes fairly fast and furious after the old subconscious has had some time to WORK ON THE PROBLEM.

You're definitely on the right track but talk to your characters...

Good luck!


The Film Diva said...

Thanks Will and Unk! I have a solid draft of the script now and I'm trying to go deeper. I keep
writing and cutting, writing and cutting. The last week I've been doing some background scenework between my protag and his parents. I've found a few good pieces and am very close to the end of the first full draft.

CARRIE -- as far as the spec selling goes, setting alone doesn't really have any bearing on whether or not your spec will sell. The most important thing is quality and genre. The reality of the business is that there are certain types of films the studios "program." The proportions and particulars vary according to market conditions. Every studio has its own logic as to what they believe will sell in the upcoming 18-36 months. Anyway, the main thing is that your script rock the house, and that you consider it a calling card to get you in with the producers, talent, etc. who you want to work with, selling it is sort of incidental to all of that, and many great specs never sell, or sell years and years after they get passed around town.

Icaterus -- Thanks for visiting the blog. I agree, "rising" action is important, but I prefer not to think of it that way in my head as I find it sort of counter-productive. I try to focus on grounding the character and coming up with a strong dramatic question for the emotional arc, then the problems naturally get worse and worse until the character is forced to find the answer to the *real* problem. When I think of it the other way, i.e. making the plot "rise" then I find that I'm creating obstacles and complications that stand apart from my character's emotional arc. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? Whatever gets you to the party.