6 Essential Traits of a Great Drama Screenplay
Drama strikes at the heart of what it means to be human.
The "drama" genre has evolved from an all-encompassing understanding of performance art into a more precise manner of storytelling. Despite this narrowing of focus, drama remains a multifaceted genre that draws in viewers from all walks of life. There are many elements of the drama genre that a screenwriter can utilize in order to create a memorable experience for readers.
A great drama has the ability to speak universal truths that connect cultures from around the world on an interpersonal level. Wherever these stories are spun, they are tales that transcend boundaries because of their humanistic nature.
ScreenCraft contributor Ken Miyamoto best described drama as "a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces."
Drama is created when a heightened sense of reality is portrayed through relatable human experience. It’s the performance of our relationship with the world and others. Human history is drama. In Aristotelian thought, drama would be more akin to tragedy, dealing with serious, important, and virtuous people, in contrast to comedy which deals with human weaknesses and foibles.
Since the dawn of Hollywood, great dramas have been celebrated as the pinnacle of cinematic art.
What are some of the most essential traits of great drama screenplays?
It all begins with conflict.
A hunter tracks down a wounded deer and discovers a drug deal gone wrong. He is met with a choice. He decides to take the money, kicking off a chain reaction of events that leaves a whole lotta death and destruction in its wake. In No Country For Old Men, if Llewelyn Moss had never taken that money, then he would have no conflict — and no story to tell.
This scene is a series of small conflicts that leads the main character from one critical decision to the next. His fate is an accumulation of his decisions.
- Conflict #1: Llewelyn shoots a deer but doesn’t kill it, so he has to track it.
- Conflict #2: Llewelyn finds a separate trail of blood and spots a wounded dog.
- Conflict #3: He tracks the second trail of blood and finds the shoot out. A wounded man asks for water. This leads to more conflict later when Llewelyn makes the decision to honor the request.
- Conflict #4: Llewelyn hunts down the last man standing and takes the money.
Conflict forces the protagonist out of their comfort zone. Everything is hinged on the decisions that the character makes throughout their journey. It’s how the character responds and reacts to conflict that drives the plot forward and ultimately defines them. Usually, it’s the characters’ bad decisions that get them in trouble in the first place.
For Llewelyn, his decision to take the cash creates a trail of blood money that leads a homicidal maniac and a cartel to his front door, tracking him down like a wounded deer. The hunt is on the moment he makes his choice.
The most memorable characters connect with audiences on a deeper level because of their vulnerability. Audiences need to care for the characters. Even antiheroes like Walter White garner sympathy despite their increasingly villainous actions.
Audiences want characters to make the right decisions based on real life expectations. As an example of a “pure” character that most audiences adore, let’s look no further than Rudy.
Audiences root for Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger because he always tries to do the right thing. His flaw is something that he can’t change. He’s too small for his big dreams. He’s resigned to follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers and work in a steel mill for the rest of his life. His best friend Pete is the only person who believes in his dream to play football for Notre Dame. When Pete dies in a work accident, Rudy is called into action.
Rudy is a likable underdog character that routinely fails despite his best efforts. The repeated failures only push him to work harder, which endears him even more to audiences. It’s Rudy’s relatability that makes his character so defined. Every hard worker with a dream sees a little bit of themselves in his resolve.
A character can’t remain stagnant. They have to realize their flaws at some point and make an effort to overcome them. Seeing how it’s usually the character’s main flaw that gets them into hot water in the first place, this becomes what they need to change in order for resolution. Some characters rise to the occasion while others falter. Think of the two characters in Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, Ally and Jackson Maine.
After discovering Ally’s raw talent in a bar and falling in love with her, country singer Jackson Maine slips deeper into a hole of addiction as his popularity wanes. Meanwhile, Ally’s star rises which creates conflict that jeopardizes Ally’s aspirations and spells ruin for what’s left of Jackson’s stifling career. Ally has to make choices that put her career first, or else she might sink with him — leading to different ends of the character arc spectrum.
One character rises while the other falls, serving as a cautionary tale for our protagonist Ally on the price of fame as she reaches her pinnacle moment. The emotional turmoil of losing her husband leads to her emancipation.
If only it didn’t have to be so hard for our characters to reach their full potential — but it does.
The more your characters overcome, the greater the payoff is at the end of your script. Audiences want that triumphant moment like in The Pursuit of Happyness. For two hours audiences watched Chris Gardner suffer. Two hours of sacrifice and hard work and steady losing. Then, when he finally wins and steps outside after landing the big job, the audience takes that breath of fresh air with him. His tears are their tears. His triumph is theirs too because they were with him every painful step of the way.
An incredibly dazzling display of emotional range can be found in the series Fleabag by super creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In the first season, a young woman grieves the death of her best friend the only way she knows how — by sleeping with different men and generally living up to her moniker.
The first season’s running joke is Fleabag’s capacity to seemingly have no limit in her taste for men. Her sexual appetite introduces the audience to great comedic relief characters that are punctuated by Fleabag’s witty introspections and fourth wall breaks.
The punchline of the first season’s running joke is the perfunctory reason behind her best friend’s death. The dramatic reveal leaves the audience feeling a conflicted mix of emotions — knowing that the character flaw that made them laugh all season is the very thing that made them cry.
The ability to manipulate an audience’s emotions from laughter to tears, then back to laughter again is an essential trait of great storytelling. If your story produces the desired emotional effect that you wish to elicit — whether that’s to cry, scare, or laugh — then you are doing your job as the writer.
Life isn’t singular — it’s a vast range of emotions and experiences. To go back to Bharata’s Rasa theory — the principle human feelings are, “delight, laughter, sorrow, anger, energy, fear, disgust, heroism, and astonishment.”
Use them all.
The greatest stories ever told are rooted in reality, however fantastic they might be. They speak on uncomfortable truths felt by all but only spoken by the few and the brave. Stories such as Fleabag come across so personally because they’re written with a vivid rawness that is almost autobiographical. Audiences crave stories that are real.
Sure, nonsensical action blockbusters will always be a thing — but with the rise in streaming platforms and the influence of social media — audiences are responding to a new wave of realism with record breaking support. Content has never been more accessible. That means there’s a high demand for new stories told by new voices.
Oftentimes a writer might think, “Whoa, this is way too personal. I can’t possibly include it in my script.”
You should. By being vulnerable with yourself, you are being vulnerable with your audience. This makes your characters more relatable and everything much more layered. Someone out there is going through the very same thing that you are, hoping they are not alone. Show them that they aren’t.
Be true to yourself. Be fearless. Be real.
This is an often overlooked trait. It's what will "hook" a producer or development executive who asks "why this, why now?"
How does your screenplay reflect the social dynamics of the setting?
Historical, biopic, military, and other true stories remain popular sub-genres of drama because they cover events and public figures that are already well known by audiences — giving these films the ability to make sales on the subject matter alone. Despite the date or location of your screenplay, all art is reflective of the time in which it is created. Why does your story need to be told right now?
Our favorite hapless hero Forrest Gump exemplifies this. Forrest Gump was released in 1994 on the tail end of the millennium. It was a reflective and nostalgic time that called back to previous eras and subcultures.
Forrest meandered through the greatest milestones of recent American history, depicting the coming of age story of an entire generation that will never get old. History is always relevant.
Drama is everywhere.
It’s in the stories we tell our co-workers during break or family members at dinner. It is a fixture of our daily lives. Some people thrive on it. Others don’t want no drama. Regardless, there is no escaping it, so writers channel it into their work whether they realize it or not.
The writer who is able to translate the complexities of being human with empathy and compassion through their own unique point of view is well on their way to writing the next great drama screenplay.