Saturday, June 6, 2009


If we make the analogy that drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and that, as a language, it possesses its own, unique grammar for the construction and presentation of meaningful dramatic actions, then it is not a very big leap to say that every dramatic film scene is analogous to a sentence, for like a sentence, the dramatic scene is the expression of a complete idea - a complete DRAMATIC idea. And like a sentence it is composed of a SUBJECT (the character driving the scene), a VERB (the central action of the scene) and an OBJECT or OBJECTIVE (what the character is striving for).

Every successful dramatic screenplay presents meaningful (emotionally compelling) and identifiable characters and character actions through an inter-connected succession of inter-related scenes, which creates sequences ("paragraphs"), and acts ("chapters") and ultimately a complete story.

The actions presented are instances of a character's desire to either achieve or attain some objective or goal, or overcome some problem or obstacle that threatens their well-being or plans, and the well-being of whatever it is they care about, usually another character or characters. In the Australian film, Sampson and Delilah, for example, the evolving relationship between the two prinicipal characters is tested by a series of crises that results in one of them committing to the well-being of the other.

Dramatic films - fictional and factional - are driven forward, narratively, by the actions of their characters. Every scene in a dramatic narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end, that evidences a change in the emotional and/or physical circumstances of at least one of the characters. A dramatic scene usually "belongs" to the character that is driving the action of the scene, and whose actions most decisively effect the movement or change that occurs within it; however, the main character of the story is not necessarily the character that will drive every scene, even though that character may be present in every scene.

Echoing the main conflict of the story, the conflict inside each scene is most successful (emotionally meaningful) if it is grounded in a character's over-arching goal or desire, and the frustration of, or threat posed to, that desire by the other characters, or by nature, or both.

A dramatic character is, by definition, a character that is striving for something, or as Michael Shurtleff observed, "a character that is fighting for something".

Striving is only meaningful when it is clear that the goal is worthwhile or when failure to achieve the goal carries dire consequences. There must be risk and the chance of failure for drama to occur. Risk and the possibility of failure occurs most commonly when someone or something opposes the character's best attempts to achieve his or her objective or goal. The ensuing conflict that emerges from this opposition MOVES the character to act, and their actions move them either closer to or further away from their goal. A verbal clash between characters that results in no change whatsoever is not (dramatic) conflict.

Inexperienced screenwriters usually associate verbal altercations with conflict, whereas real conflict is an obstruction to the desire or goal inside the scene. A dramatic goal, by definition, is what is to be won or lost; it stimulates the plans of action enacted by the character to achieve that goal. If what the character wants is given to him/her too easily, the opportunity to build emotional energy through opposition is lost. And if the character merely avoids the confrontation, as is the case in far too many Australian screenplays, the character is rendered passive and emotionally uninteresting.

In successive dramatic scenes, what the main character does and what happens to him or her as a result of what s/he does, is the driving force behind the emotional energies that are being built or released.

In each dramatic scene, a character will do something that brings him/her closer to his/her goal, or propels him/her further away from the attainment of that goal.

Each instance of change effects each subsequent instance of change insofar as it provides the circumstances and conditions what happens next. In this way, dramatic screen storytellling might be characterised as a cause-and-effect process guided by a series of shots (cuts) that continuously direct the audience's attention to that region of the story (action) that most elegantly and powerfully elaborates the nexus of forces at work in the emotional lives of the characters.

For more about the grammar of dramatic screenwriting and the creation of effective dramatic scenes, visit