Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

August 30, 2013

So What Makes for a Good Drama?

(Alternate post title: Do Video Games Need More Drama?)

(Alternate [alternate] post title: Calm Like a [Drama] Bomb)

(Alternate [alternate {alternate}] post title: HNGHFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF)

…Okay.  Let’s get serious now.

Not too long ago, I made a list of my top ten favorite movies (which a lot of people seemed to be impressed by; go figure).  As you’d expect from me, it was something of an eclectic  -- and eccentric -- list…but looking back on it, the one commonality I can’t help but note is how many of those titles were, or could be loosely classified as, dramas.  Shakespeare in Love is my favorite movie ever, and while you could argue it’s more of a romance than anything, part of what makes it work is that it has some strong dramatic elements.  You could argue the same for a few others I like; Remember the Titans is a sure fit in spite of being a sports movie, October Sky DEFINITELY goes in, Contact has its points, and even West Side Story makes sense in spite of being a musical.  (Then again, considering what it’s based on, it’s not too far of a stretch.)

It’s weird.  I would have thought that I was a straight-up comedy guy -- or if not that, then a superhero action guy -- but drama?  Inconceivable!  I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m on record saying things like “why watch something that could make you cry when you’d rather watch something that’ll make you laugh instead?”  Not in those exact words, obviously, but the intent is there.  People like to laugh.  People don’t like to cry.  Therefore, people don’t like things that make them cry.  Sounds simple enough…but then you get into all sorts of things like catharsis and Oscar Bait and -- nope, not gonna rail on gritty stuff again.  I already did that today…forty-eight seconds ago, in fact.

So yeah, I’ve had drama on my mind for a little while now.  Well, maybe not drama per se, but the phrase I mentioned earlier: “dramatic elements.”  After all, I’ve always thought that a good product manages to strike a balance between its parts; in a lot of cases, I’ve always believed that a good mix of action, comedy, and drama make for a good story (even though “action” doesn’t necessarily always equate to punching out Red Skull, but work with me here).  So it’s only natural that in order to nurture that balance -- especially for my own opinions and efforts -- I need to figure out what makes drama so good in the first place.

I’d wager I’m not the only one, though.  If video games are intent on evolving and offering meaningful experiences, then chances are their developers are going to have to learn how to put in strong, meaningful drama.  By the looks of things, the intent to add it in has already been proven -- via The Last of Us, among a number of others -- and there’s no intention to stop there, at least if early PR speak on Battlefield 4 is to be believed.  But there are problems.  People are going to be looking at The Last of Us and what it did, but I sincerely hope that those same people -- gamers, devs, and bigwigs alike -- are going to understand what did and DIDN’T work in the game, not just the fact that certain things are in it and it got 10/10 reviews so oh my God it must be flawless.  As for Battlefield 4, I’m not convinced EA will add any genuine human drama and emotion to the game unless they fuse it to the multiplayer suite with an oversized staple gun.  The probability of that is not particularly high…you know, if I had to guess.  

With all that in mind, a question still remains: how do you make good drama?  Even if your product isn’t necessarily a full-on drama, chances are high that it’s going to have some dramatic elements.  So what’s the key to making them work?  What gives some drama merit, while others are shamed and derided as angstapaloozas?  What leaves audiences breathless -- or even teary-eyed?  What pushes their patience past their limits, crying over the fact that they wasted their lives with something about as potent as the onions on a Whataburger?

If you ask me…I wouldn’t know.

I don’t have a solid answer.  If I did, I’d probably have my own throne right now surrounded by Allyson Hannigan lookalikes serving me hot dogs and root beer.  Sure, I’d like to think I’ve got a handle on introducing dramatic elements (though the jury’s still out on my actual skill level), but I’m convinced that as I am now, it’s not enough to think.  I want to know.  I want to know, so I can be better than what I am now.  Not just as a would-be writing hero -- as someone who can internalize, understand, and ultimately judge the works of others.  If I can crack the code, I can crack myself…and come out stronger than ever.

Here’s what I’m proposing.  I’m going to open this space up for discussion.  I’ll use the rest of this post to offer up my thoughts on what makes for good dramatic elements, but by no means should you consider it a complete list or guide.  That’s where you come in.  Leave a comment offering your own thoughts and opinions -- and of course, you’re more than welcome to agree/disagree with me, or anyone else that raises a point in this virtual space.  Got something on your mind?  Need clarification?  Want to know some of my favorite side dishes with hot dogs?  You know what to do.

And I know, as well.  Now then, time to see what I can do.

The key to a good drama is…

1) Interesting, relatable characters.
All right, this one’s pretty much a gimme.  From what I can gather, in most conventional cases in most conventional stories, YOU CAN’T HAVE A GOOD STORY WITHOUT GOOD CHARACTERS.  That is non-negotiable.  People put heavy emphasis on characters, and how much they like a universe at large depends on the characters -- or lead character -- in it.  My brother likes Batman but hates Superman, so he’d much rather read about the plights of Gotham City than adventures in Metropolis.  I’m almost the inverse; I don’t hate Batman, but I find Superman a lot more intriguing, and as such would much prefer to read Superman comics.  Obvious enough.

I was about to call this point on the list “strong, relatable characters”, but I didn’t want to give the wrong impression.  When I say “strong” character, I mean that in terms of their quality, not in terms of their disposition and definitely not their ability.  A character with weaknesses, faults, and concerns is infinitely more interesting than someone who glowers their way through an adventure.  In order to have drama, characters need to be able to react and respond to the issues that crop up in their lives, no matter the source.  Even if they’re not strictly human (Okami had you playing as a four-legged deity, but that wasn’t to its detriment), they can still be understandable thanks to their character, their dynamics, and their plight.  Speaking of which…

2) A conflict that makes sense to the audience.
For the most part, you can make any story, no matter how strange, work and impress an audience…assuming that whatever you do, you do it adroitly.  I know I’ve given Final Fantasy 13 a lot of guff over the years, but its underlying conflict -- being a slave of the gods and the choices that emerge from it -- is something that could have worked if it was done well.  There’s an intriguing story to be had there.  Hell, you could say the same about 13-2 of all things, and I thought that came out as a story harder to follow than a cheetah stuffed into a rocket car.  You have to know what to focus on, even if your story’s concept is utterly bonkers.  Although “bonkers” in this case can mean anything with even remotely-fantastic properties; seriously, try explaining the particulars of Star Wars out loud.  It’s silly.

There are ideas and themes that are identifiable to any audience, even if the particulars surrounding them are miles beyond the norm.  Just look at all the Pixar movies -- a good number of them don’t even have humans in them (at least not in a leading role), but that doesn’t stop them from tackling themes like friendship, betrayal, perseverance, family, loyalty, duty, love, and more.  It’s the inspection of those familiar themes that helps make for good drama -- even if it’s with unfamiliar settings and characters.  There are just some things that people can just say “Oh, I get it” to, giving you the freedom to play with that conflict at your leisure.

3) Progression of conflict, either positive or negative, for the character(s).
Otherwise known as “highs and lows.”  Though as you’ll see, this isn’t an ironclad rule.

If you’re at least four years old, you probably know that life is full of ups and downs.  Good times as well as bad.  You have to acknowledge that both happiness and sadness are things that are going to occur in your life under normal circumstances…but of course, there are times when works of fiction seem to forget that for whatever reason.  It’s easy to connect “drama” with “never-ending seriousness and sadness”, but in light of many, many movies that’s not necessarily the case.  Remember the Titans starts with the old gang going to visit a grave, and is punctuated regularly by the pervasive racism in the town -- and the team itself -- but it’s also got some good comedic moments, plenty of heartwarming and spirit-raising sequences, and a moment that I swear was ripped straight out of Ace Attorney if the movie hadn’t predated the first U.S. release by several years.     

To be fair, there are times when trying to add in a high or a low would be detrimental to the product; you wouldn’t expect or want a sudden identity crisis introduced in a comedy, especially if it’s played for drama instead of laughs.  But I’d like to think that the differences in position on the imaginary plot graph help each other out.  The highs accentuate the lows.  The lows accentuate the highs.  Without an appreciation of one, there can’t be an appreciation for the other.

4) Consequences for every action.
This is something that could be extended to any plot, dramatic or otherwise, but I’d like to think that this is certainly the case for a drama.  If the intent is to offer up something serious and/or meaningful for an audience, then the creator has to do something to make events and actions have meaning.  The best way to do that?  Reward or punish certain actions.  I seem to recall Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet setting up consequences for any more violence in Verona, and Act 3 being the payoff: Romeo kills Tybalt in a fight, and gets banished as a result, setting up the rest of the conflict, suspense, and drama to follow.  If you’re feeling gutsy (or in the mood to generalize heavily), you could argue that drama relies on negative consequences rather than positive ones, even if the leads do the right thing.

But then again, that’s precisely the point.  Characters need to get taken out of their comfort zones, and the best way to do that is to shake up their worlds via actions and circumstances that are almost destined to make problems for them.  In the audience’s case, we need to see things going wrong, or every so often going right.  If there isn’t -- if all we see are spinning-in-circles dialogues about concepts we could care less about -- then the drama rings hollow.  Think about it.  If you’re trying to get something out of your audience, the last adjective you want to hear is “hollow”.  And on that note, we come to…

5) The payoff.
On one hand, this is what everything else should funnel into; on the other hand, I think it’s all right to consider this as its own point. 

I mentioned catharsis earlier, and that’s probably the best way to sum it up.  Like with any good story, the drama has to build up to something and deliver by the very end, so that we can gain something substantial as a result.  Something that’ll make us cry.  Something that’ll make us think.  Something that’ll leave us breathless, and considering a quick dial of 911.   For better or worse, a story exists to get a reaction out of people.  And the proper application -- of dramatic elements, or just drama in general -- has a chance of not only doing that, but making sure that the ideas held within stick with you for a long time. 

It’s not necessarily a matter of seriousness per se as it is about earnestness.  A willingness to explore ideas and themes; a desire to put characters, no matter how unreal, through the imaginary gauntlet set before them; a curiosity test the reactions of others, of casts, and of oneself; a hope to impart something, be it a thought, opinion, or emotion on whoever stumbles upon your work.

That’s payoff.  That’s drama.  And of course, that’s a good story.

…But I could be wrong, though.  Or if not that, then at least hilariously misguided.  Then again, that’s precisely where you come in.

I’ve done about all I can on my own, so let me hear your thoughts.  Think you can come up with your own answers?  Have some examples based on the things you’ve played, read, or seen?  Care to divulge your thoughts?  Do you have what it takes to reveal your own hidden celebrity crush?  Leave a comment, and let me hear what’s on your mind.  And be sure to let others know, too.  We’re not going to get anywhere unless we build ourselves a little community.

Oooh, speaking of which…

I need to watch this show more.  Stupid TV and its inexplicable inability to clearly show NBC…why have you forsaken me, antenna?!  WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?!

Huh.  Guess I learned something else about drama today.

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