Ray Morton examines the heart of a dramatic story. A story that does not have this form and structure and that does not contain these elements may be a narrative, but it will not be drama.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.
Narrative feature films tell dramatic stories. Based on many of the screenplays I read and many of the questions I receive, it seems that many aspiring screenwriters (and, to be frank, more than a few pros) do not know what a dramatic story is, so I thought it would be useful to explain it here.
A dramatic story is a very specific type of narrative—it has a precise form and a precise structure and it contains some very particular elements. A story that does not have this form and structure and that does not contain these elements may be a narrative, but it will not be drama.
A dramatic narrative focuses on a lead character called the protagonist. The protagonist is the story’s main character—the character we (the audience) follow from the beginning of the story until the end and through whose eyes we see the story unfold. A dramatic story only has one protagonist—there is no such thing as a dramatic narrative with multiple protagonists (so-called “multiple character” or “ensemble” scripts that are sometimes identified as having multiple protagonists are actually scripts that contain multiple individual narratives intercut with one another, each with its own individual protagonist). In the course of a dramatic tale, the protagonist will develop a strong and meaningful goal that he will then pursue throughout the narrative. The protagonist is always active—he does things to accomplish his goal; he makes things happen. A protagonist is never passive—he never just lets things happen to him—and is never reactive—a protagonist always takes action rather than simply responding to the actions of others. The actions the protagonist takes in pursuit of his goal are the story’s engine—they drive the plot ever forward. Finally, the protagonist undergoes a significant personal transformation in the course of the story that is brought about by his experiences in the story. This is called the protagonist’s arc.
A dramatic narrative has three sections called acts. Many people will argue that a drama can have fewer or more than three acts, but this is not the case. Scripts can certainly be formatted in fewer than three sections (stage plays are often just one or two acts) or more than three segments (many one-hour network TV shows are divided into six acts, plus a teaser and/or a tag), but this is a matter of presentation rather than narrative structure. No matter how many pieces the script is divided into, a properly constructed dramatic narrative has three distinct parts—no more and no less.
A dramatic narrative unfolds as follows:
- Act I: The protagonist is introduced and something happens that sets the story in motion. This something is called the inciting incident. The protagonist responds to the inciting incident and things go smoothly and as expected until something else happens that sends the story spinning in an entirely new and unexpected direction. This something else is called the end-of-Act-I-plot twist or the first plot twist.
- Act II: The protagonist responds to the first plot twist be developing a strong goal that he is determined to achieve. He develops a plan for accomplishing this goal and then he sets out to implement the plan. Along the way, he encounters an increasingly difficult series of obstacles—including opposition from a formidable antagonist—which he must his skills, talents, and abilities to overcome. After a rocky start, the protagonist’s plan begins to work and as the end of Act II approaches, it appears as if the protagonist will accomplish his goal. But then the protagonist suffers a terrible reversal that not only prevents him from accomplishing his goal, but makes it seem as if it will be impossible for him to ever accomplish it.
- As Act III begins, all appears to be lost. But then the protagonist rallies and finds a way to reverse his reversal. He either finds a new way to accomplish his goal or comes up with an entirely new goal. He pursues this new course of action, which leads him into a final confrontation with the antagonist. In the end, the protagonist defeats the antagonist and finally accomplishes his goal (unless the story is a tragedy, in which case he does not accomplish it). As the story concludes, the protagonist demonstrates the transformation he has undergone in the course of the narrative.
Some may consider what I just laid out as a formula. I prefer to think of it as a framework—or better yet a recipe. You need certain ingredients and to follow certain procedures if you want to make a cake—if you don’t, you may end up with a pie or a soufflé or a Twinkie, but you won’t have a cake. However, that recipe can be adjusted in an infinite number of ways: you can use it to make a chocolate cake or a yellow cake or a red velvet cake or a sponge cake or a lemon cake or a pineapple upside-down cake or…well, you get the idea. The framework for a dramatic narrative is also enormously versatile: it can be used to craft dramas, action movies, thrillers, romcoms, musicals, horror movies, sci-fi flick, fantasy films, biopics, etc., etc., etc. It can be intimate or epic; reality-based or fantastic; straightforward or non-linear. The only thing it can’t do is be ignored. If you employ this framework, you will end up with a solid piece of dramatic storytelling. If you don’t, you may end up with a Twinkie.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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