If you’re anything like me, the prospect of writing a formal drama is deeply intimidating. Not only do you have to craft an original idea from thin air, but it must be grounded, with the potential to occur within the bounds of our defined reality. It’s spinning stories from real life and making them as exciting, transporting, as a fantasy or adventure epic. But this doesn’t mean the process has to change.
With awards snobbery and prestige hovering over you, it can be hard to remember that even dramas fall into genre. By definition, a drama is meant to evoke some heavy emotion – sadness, anger, triumph – through realistic ways. The stories still need an inciting incident, a convincing conflict, and a genuine resolution of said conflict, along with compelling characters.
So, for those of us who lean toward fantastical content, how do we shift gears? We don’t have to. Genre techniques can still benefit a naturalistic story; in fact, using them can add suspense and investment to your narrative. It’s all about understanding what makes a genre story work, what makes it so popular. The principles, in many ways, are identical.
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GENERATE TENSION – SCARE THE AUDIENCE
In order to evoke emotion, one must first draw their audience in. As a filmgoer, I see plenty of similarities between the opening of a drama and that of a horror/suspense film. Both types of stories tend to start with a neutral situation, something recognizable. The viewer also needs time to initiate themselves in the film’s world before the conflict begins. The most successful horror/thrillers put this into practice: if the world is familiar, the audience will respond when it gets flipped on its head – and then, they’ll be invested.
Horror films offer blueprints for both emotional and psychological immersion. Plenty of filmmakers use unsettling techniques to make their drama affecting, even frightening. Trey Edward Shultz made Krisha, a brutally dark but non-violent family drama, before It Comes at Night. The basis of Hereditary is human grief, not supernatural evil, and its best scenes are those that focus on the characters’ emotions. Fear is the strongest emotion to share with someone, and putting the audience in a frightening situation alongside the protagonist can ensure empathy.
BUILD CONNECTION – ENDEAR THE AUDIENCE
One thing that plot-heavy genres have going for them: they don’t need complex characters to be entertaining. When the set pieces and external conflicts drive the script’s action, the human element becomes a vehicle, not the driving force. Dramas don’t work this way – without layered humanity, their stories have no anchor. Comedies and romances rely on endearing characters, however, so taking cues from their practices can be vital.
How does Kristen Wiig endear us to her protagonist in Bridesmaids? Why are we invested (presuming that we are) in the puppy love at the heart of The Notebook? Both of these films involve convincing human drama, but their skeletons are thoroughly genre. Comedies introduce us to their characters through foolish mistakes and failures, the kind that makes us laugh while cringing; romances show us two people whose pure connection can overcome any adversity. By analyzing their techniques, how they make us care through the constructs of hilarity or sensuality, one can adopt their success in a more grounded setting.
ESTABLISH STAKES – MOVE THE AUDIENCE
What genres have the most satisfying endings, the ones that make us wring our hands in worry, cry out in triumph, sob or cheer or celebrate? War epics, fantastical adventures, action flicks – they all require resolution, because they put their good characters up against genuine evil, and one must be destroyed for the other to win. By replacing an evil conqueror with a stubborn family member or cruel boss, the scale diminishes – but the stakes remain. The human conflicts can be as vital and urgent as an impending battle or showdown. It’s all about what they mean to the characters, and they should mean life or death, no matter how mundane their origins.
The transference doesn’t have to be strictly external, either. Emotionally, what’s the difference between overcoming a villain and overcoming one’s own fear? The best epics address this duality, and your drama can as well. If we care about the characters, we’ll care about their personal wants and needs – even more so if they’re the ones standing in their way. That personal, emotional connection is vital to any story, and in drama, it becomes the story’s entire focus – the psychological landscape’s possibilities are endless.
Has this article helped you wrap your head around the task of drama writing? Leave a comment below!
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplayand ScreenCraft. His column Forbid