Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Dramatic Screenwriting (1): Building and Releasing Energy
Dramatic stories are structured presentations of emotional energy given form and movement by the actions of characters who are struggling to overcome problems and anxieties that threaten their safety or well-being. Guided by objectives and a clear goal, as well as a plan or plans for achieving that goal, the dramatic character encounters mounting opposition accompanied by ever-increasing risk. The source of opposition may be either the other characters, or nature, or both. Acting under a substantial threat, dramatic characters will go on acting until they either succeed or fail to achieve their goal and thus resolve the problem that is causing them to suffer. The rhythmic, sequential, and contentious interplay of competing agendas and conflicting actions builds or releases energy. These two elemental tendencies – the building and releasing of emotional energy – are what characterise the movement of all dramatic narratives. When successfully realised, this energy elicits a palpable and appropriate emotional response from an audience. Conversely, when a story stops building energy or is unable to effectively release it the energy dissipates, which is another way of saying the story becomes undramatic.
The energy that is built and released in dramatic stories is emotional energy, which is primarily grounded in the characters and their relationships. A story’s emotional energy is built and released by the actions of characters whose struggle we care about by virtue of some significant and identifiable relationship that that struggle puts at risk or strives to conserve or re-establish. Unsympathetic strangers vying for contradictory goals and oblivious to one another’s existence are, on their own, unlikely to have much of an impact on us. But make them empathetic brothers in love with the same woman, or a well-meaning stepmother so smitten by her stepson that she cannot keep her hands off him, and, suddenly, everyone is terribly interested. In drama, “to mean” is “to care”.
It is, therefore, dramatic relationships that drive a story’s meaning. Relationships become dramatic when suffering touches them. When characters act in the hope of lessening or ending their suffering – when they are actually striving for something – they become susceptible to our caring. Suffering is the motive force behind a story’s emotional energy; it is what provokes the urgency that compels a character to act. Psychologically, this urgency manifests as an ontological anxiety. To be a character is to be anxious.
Though one might conceive of numerous possible sub-sets, there are basically four types of anxiety relevant to dramatic storytelling. These are the anxiety of doubt, the anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of death and the anxiety of meaninglessness . Each of these, in its way, is symptomatic of any number of psychological wounds or beliefs (often false or imagined) that stimulate action by aggravating the anxieties that inform or condition the characters’ relationships with the other characters and with their world. As characters grapple with their anxieties, and the frustrations inherent in their relationships, their actions expose these wounds and, quite often, exacerbate thus promoting even riskier and more urgent action. Without anxiety and action there can be neither energy nor drama.
The external manifestations of a character's emotional state (dramatisation) provide perceivable, rhythmic alterations of energy that underscore the central element of dramatic action, i.e.: movement or change. To be involved in a story’s energy is to be awake to it emotionally, and to realise that the energy is always moving and that this movement is happening in time. In this respect drama shares an affinity with that other “time art”, music; for, like music, it builds emotional energy – between consonance and dissonance – “in time”, and releases it “in time”. Dramatic energy is so infused with pace, timing and rhythm, that the lack of any one of these is capable of robbing a story of its power and, consequently, its meaning. Through an extremely visceral, albeit rigorously intuitive and some times physical process, a storyteller finds, selects, orders and emphasizes the dynamic energy relevant to the characters, and in so doing takes the measure of the story’s pace and rhythm, finding in its timing the authenticity or otherwise of the emotions expressed. At its most basic, the art of dramatic storytelling is the art of managing time.
But to say that dramatic energy is always moving, and that its movement is rhythmic, is only part of the story. If the movement is to be meaningful, it must not only move but move for some purpose; that is, the action must be directed towards achieving some objective or goal. However, rhythmic action, even when wedded to plot and driven by a final cause, will not guarantee the sort of unexpected energy shifts that create surprise and provoke attention. Divorced from some deep and identifiable emotional source in character, plot too easily veers into melodrama.
In order to break from formula and find characters that are capable of generating potent emotional energy through genuinely surprising and credible actions, change must be rooted in, or connected to, the origins of both the characters AND the storyteller. Only when the emotional energy in a story flows from one’s origins – the characters’ and the writer’s – does the story become possessed of that most special of all artistic qualities: FRESHNESS.
Freshness is not a commodity; it is not something that can be practised or stored up to be taken out and used whenever it is needed. Unlike knowledge, it is neither a consequence of method, nor something that can be affixed or added to the action after it has been written down. Rather, it emerges from the dynamic and on-going energy exchanges that occur among the characters and between the characters and the storyteller at their origins, and finds its voice and body in the surprising, unexpected and thoroughly credible utterances and actions of utterly dramatic characters.
Energy that springs from one’s origins is, by definition, energy that is centred in one’s Being. It is the energy that comes of sitting squarely in the middle of one’s own anxiety, but without the fear reaction that so often accompanies anxiety. To attend to one’s origins is to find the “what” that stands behind the “who” that chooses to be or not to be. It is to reacquaint oneself with one’s belonging place, where the as-yet unmade Self is constantly in the process of becoming present. In one’s origins one finds the natural confidence and spontaneity that makes freshness possible. In one’s origins is the birthing place of the “true voice”. To work from one’s origins is to be original. Every act of originality is an action that comes straight from one’s innermost nature. Freshness is originality. It is that secret and rare ingredient that everyone knows about, that is made more rare because of the knowing. It is the essential quality of emotional energy without which a story remains merely a construction of one’s will and whatever set of values and prejudices one’s taste and fears dictate.