Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dramatic Storytelling (2) : The Primordial Grammar

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When dramatic screen stories are effective and fresh they present energy that moves and transforms in ways that keep their audiences inside the action, identifying with the characters. A story’s effectiveness in eliciting a relevant emotional response from an audience is traceable to the story’s action as it operates within a logical, syntactical-like structure that shapes and nuances the interactions that are taking place. In other words, dramatic action – as a way of communicating emotionally meaningful energy – embodies a grammar that is illustrative of the basic principles and processes by which the energy is successfully built and released. It might even be said that dramatic storytelling is a language insofar as it expresses and embodies meaningful shifts in emotional energy by way of a series of structured and rhythmic actions.

Issue-based stories referencing situations that are charged with emotions not present in the stories themselves are capable of seducing careless storytellers (and audiences) into believing the stories are more dramatic than they really are. The seductiveness of “the real” frequently militates against a storyteller’s critical instincts, especially when he or she has an emotional investment in or attachment to the subject of the story that is being told. When the subjective emphasis of content over form detunes the storyteller’s sensitivity to the story’s grammar, the storyteller is at risk of reading energy into actions where in fact there is no energy at all.

The antidote to this fallacious reading (and writing) of dramatic scripts is to approach and examine story in terms of its grammar. By looking at the dramatic grammar by which the energies of a story move and interact, a storyteller is better able to usefully explore and more thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the action, scene by scene, sequence by sequence. As one becomes more fluent in the grammar, one is able to take a script apart, to see where the energy is coming from, and how it behaves and impacts on every character in every scene, sequence and act, including the implied energy that operates “in the cut” between each scene. In understanding a story’s grammar, the storyteller gains an invaluable tool for illuminating and exploring dramatic action, thus making every scene more susceptible to objective, critical observation, and every re-write a product of more incisive and dispassionate analysis than might have been the case had the grammar been ignored.

In focusing on a story’s grammar – that is, its structure and the movement of its emotional energy – a storyteller is conducted into the way in which drama means and the special syntax of dramatic actions that either facilitates (when present) or obscures (when absent) a story’s power to make us care. As one becomes more familiar with the grammar one begins to recognise that it has a bearing not only on the ways in which the energy moves, but the effectiveness of its movement. Indeed, a story’s dramatic grammar is instrumental not only in the creation of dramatically viable and absorbing characters, but also in promoting an audience’s willingness to engage emotionally with them.

When its origins intersect with our origins, a story’s grammatical soundness – the emotional and syntactical logic by which it means what it means – adheres to our deepest intuitive understandings concerning our own humanity. Hence, to say that a story is grammatical means that its energy moves in a way that is in keeping with our intuitive understanding of human desire and its frustration, including the unexpectedness of both. Its grammar is its credibility. The danger in creating non-grammatical stories is that one runs the risk of unnecessarily obscuring and interfering with the significance and flow of the energy and its movement, with the undesired effect of undermining the emotional energy and casting one’s audience out of the story. An ungrammatical story is a story that is unable to conjure emotion and is therefore, dramatically meaningless.

Like its grammatical cousin, the sentence, a dramatic scene is composed of a subject (character/s), verb (action/s) and predicate (the recipient/s of the action), and, like the sentence, aims at expressing a complete idea. However, in order to express a complete dramatic idea a scene must also present at least one significant change affecting the emotional energy of the character or characters involved. Such changes affect the movement of the story insofar as every change either propels the character closer to his/her goal or further away from it. The pressure or tension that a character experiences, and the actions that that experience provokes, transform the energy within the scene by either increasing it or releasing it. Where change is not present, the story remains static; the scene does NOT advance the story, and the energy dissipates.

A dramatic character is, by definition, someone or something that strives to transform the frustration (or anxiety) inherent in the dramatic problem that he/she or it is facing, in order to enact a healing, or bring about a resolution that will either end or significantly alter or transcend the frustration under which that character is suffering. The key word here is "strives", for a dramatic character is dramatic to the degree that he/she ACTS and, as a result of that action, effects CHANGE.

More often than not, a character is successful in his/her quest (“the happy ending”), but success is never a given, nor should it be. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that successful dramatic stories produce significant shifts in energy that manifest as changes in character, the character’s relationships, and the character’s world; and that an essential component of a story’s success is its adherence to a grammar that promotes the building and releasing of the emotional energies through fresh and thoroughly credible character-based actions that enable us, the audience, to care about what is happening.

The fundamental duality expressed in dramatic action is one of emotional connection (empathy, consonance) and emotional disconnection (antipathy, dissonance). Drama results when something that had been connected is suddenly disconnected, broken or interrupted, so that the main character cannot go on thinking, or believing or feeling the same way he/she did before the disconnection occurred. Disconnection introduces the element of conflict. Indeed, the disconnection is the conflict insofar as it disturbs or interferes with something that had previously been connected, asserted or assured, be it a relationship, a belief, or a state of nature.

Moreover, the initial disconnection presents a PROBLEM, which actually starts the story going – a problem that will not go away, and, at the same time, cannot be ignored. This problem, which is itself an energy shift, effectively interrupts or undermines the security of the main character/s, and the anxiety produced by the interruption compels the character/s to ACT.

However, if a character is to act he/she must first of all have a PLAN, and the plan must be a plan for something – i.e.: there must be a GOAL. So the basic grammatical building blocks of dramatic meaning, as conveyed by characters ACTING, involve problems, goals and plans.

Of course, the initial plan in any dramatic story is invariably doomed. It has to be. If it were to succeed the story would be over. If the story is to build emotional energy then the plan must not succeed. In fact, the plan must produce actions that compound the problem, thus leading the character/s into further PREDICAMENTS that force the adoption of new plans, or even new goals, which, if the story is to continue building energy, will involve greater and greater risks (stakes) for the characters. In other words, the plans that are devised to overcome the problem or assist the character in achieving a newly discovered goal, unwittingly lead to ever-greater problems and threats. Dramatic problems are, by definition, problems that are made worse by a character’s attempts to fix them. A character’s ongoing responses to the problems that his/her plans encounter are what an audience sees enacted as a story.

This is HOW a dramatic story works. It is the basic grammar that informs the formulaic decrees of all those screenwriting gurus from Syd Field to Robert McKee. However, taken on its own, this understanding is virtually worthless. Knowing HOW a dramatic story works is not the panacea it’s cracked up to be; it certainly won’t lead Joan and Joe Screenwriter out of their predictable and all-too-comfortable mediocrity. Strange as it may seem, it might very well lead them ever more deeply into it! Why? Because the knowledge of how drama works provides no assurance at all for the creation of compelling dramatic stories! The screenwriting gurus have been running a con. PROBLEM, GOAL, and PLAN are merely place-markers at the banquet table of dramatic action. It is with those that are sitting in the chairs that we must concern ourselves. In short, it’s the CHARACTERS, stupid! And characters are, by nature, a slippery mob.


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