It’s one thing to experience or read about a dramatic event. It’s quite another thing to construct a screenplay with dramatic tension at its heart.
I just returned from a two-week family camping holiday in France. Along with my suntan, mounds of dirty washing, and a very crumpled tent, I also brought home a notebook bulging with new ideas for stories, inspired by things I witnessed along the way. I’m certain most of these ideas won’t survive closer scrutiny, but then again, one or two might turn out to be worth expanding into a synopsis or an outline. But besides reminding me that the supply of story ideas is more or less infinite, another thing this experience brought home to me again, is that there’s a big difference between ‘dramatic’ in its casual everyday sense, and Dramatic in terms of screenwriting.
Slices Of Life
During the course of the holiday, I drove a couple of thousand miles, stayed at five different locations, and encountered countless different people and situations. Too many experiences to remember. Which is what life is like. We don’t even consciously register most of what we experience, it just goes in one sense and comes out another. It’s events that cause an emotional stir that make an impression. Things that make you laugh, cry, shake with fear or anger. Like my encounter with an initially genial and helpful, ex-pat manager of a depressing camp site who, when I inadvertently disturbed him during his lunch hour to check out, turned out to be a sadistic psychopath, from whom I barely managed to escape with my life. In retrospect an amusing, if unnerving incident. ‘Dramatic’ in the everyday sense of involving fear, and perhaps even material for a scene. But not a screenplay, or even a premise for one, per se.
Real Life As A Starting Point For Drama
Observing the goings-on around me, say, at a swimming pool packed with sunburned tourists or in a huge French hypermarché teeming with gesticulating Gauls, I found myself fantasizing about who various people were, what their relationships were with people they were with, what would happen if… Which is where the writing starts. Simply transcribing reality into script format doesn’t make for a great screenplay. Just try it. At best, what you end up with is an interesting starting point from which to brainstorm a dramatic premise. Even reality–based films like Social Network, or biopics like The King’s Speech, are all carefully crafted dramatic works. Which means they engage the audience’s emotions, by putting characters in situations where they stand to lose something of great value to them personally.
What’s The Risk? What’s At Stake?
20 most stressful life events to prove it. However, for an emotional experience to become an dramatic premise, the character has to be forced to choose between losing something important to them or taking some sort of risk. In real life, most people will avoid taking risks if at all possible. In drama, the audience is engaged by the character’s decision to take the risk that they, the audience, would avoid at all cost, whether it makes them cringe, cry, laugh or shiver.
A Dramatic Event Isn’t A Screenplay
So, my experience reminded me that as a screenwriter, I need to be aware which sense of ‘dramatic’ applies to an idea for a story. When the news media refer to an incident as dramatic, they mean it’s fraught with emotion (usually fear of one sort or another, followed by relief or grief). But when you refer to a story idea as dramatic, you mean it’s constructed deliberately in a way that creates tension, poses a dramatic question, and makes you want to know what happens next. The bad news is that it takes a lot of hard graft to turn a real-life event into a workable premise for a screenplay. Which you then still have to write. The good news, though, is that you are surrounded by a potentially endless supply of events and characters, each of which could be the seed of a wonderful new story idea.
And no, my encounter with the narky proprietor didn’t yield any particularly great story ideas for me, although I can well imagine aficionados of the horror or thriller genres wanting to pick up the ball and run with it…