Tips on How to Write a Drama for Stage or Screen
The key reason most scripts/films fail is that they were not properly conceived. That is, when the central conflict of the film’s story was being created not enough thought was put into finding the best dramatic ideas in it. However, by asking the right dramatic questions, writers, producers and directors can create central conflicts that are strong enough to be developed into first-rate stories. Following are ideas showing how to develop a strong central conflict for a drama. Here is how to write a drama:
Create High Value Conflicts
The first key to creating a dramatic story in any genre is to make the values in the conflict big ones. Which of the following stories would interest you more?
A) The struggle of a seamstress in a French village in 1485 to finish sewing a garment.
B) The struggle of a time traveller to stitch together the fabric of time so the universe won’t end.
B! Because the values being sought or at risk are large scale, they literally are of a life and death nature. If you look at most films that enrapture an audience, you will see that the character goals, problems, stakes are always big. Study of Die Hard, Gladiator, Casablanca, High Noon, and In the Heat of the Night, to cite just five well written films, will attest to this. In each of these classics, the values in conflict or at risk are large.
What are the values and stakes?
A writer must be clear in his or her understanding of values and stakes. A value generally is what a character acts to gain while a stake is a value that he risks losing. Values and stakes can be physical, but they can also be psychological. A character can desire and act to achieve big physical goals, such as winning a golden boot in world cup soccer, or rescuing his daughter from kidnappers, or revenging himself against the roman emperor who murdered his wife and child.
But good characters in many films also fight to gain or defend important psychological values such as honour, pride, integrity and self-esteem. In life, as in art, we constantly struggle to attain (or keep) psychological values that enhance our self and support our happiness here on earth. Such psychological values can be part of any type of story, but they are especially the norm and the stakes in dramas.
What is a Drama?
Let’s be explicit about the nature of characters in a drama. In dramas, the characters are often deeper than say the typical character in an action story. Rick Blaine (Casablanca) vs. Thor; Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night) vs. The Flash. (This is not to say that Thor and the Flash are not good characters, they are, but their stories don’t focus deeply on their psychological states.)
In essence the key attribute of a drama is mental or psychological: The internal conflict and choices of the characters. Rick Blaine must choose between being a cynical isolationist re the world (and especially the woman he loves, Ilsa), and fighting against the Nazis and loving Ilsa. In In the Heat of the Night, Chief Gillespie, a racist southern chief of police struggles with the choice of solving a big murder in his town and accepting the help (and superiority/individuality) of the only man who can solve the crime, a northern black police detective. In High Noon, Will Kane struggles between keeping his integrity by saving his town from a gang of killers and quitting to save himself and to live with his new bride.
How Self-Conflicts Create Drama
The key way for a writer to develop an internal conflict in a drama (and give his characters depth) is to give his protagonist a conflict between his two highest values. Let’s look at an instructive example of this, the classic film Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Ben Hecht, one of the greatest Hollywood scenarists. Notorious is both a suspense thriller and a drama. This is its premise: To stop a Nazi plot, an American FBI agent pimps the woman he loves to a dangerous Nazi. Immediately you can see that the story has danger but also that the two characters have serious internal conflicts and choices to make, ones that will seriously impact their lives and cause turmoil in their minds. Let’s see in more detail how Hecht and Hitchcock created drama in Notorious.
When developing their script for Notorious, Hecht and Hitchcock masterfully established their two lead characters’ highest values: their mission against the Nazis and their romantic love. The film’s two leads are FBI agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and former party girl and daughter of a Nazi Alicia (Ingrid Bergman). Both characters act on their high value goal of stopping the Nazi plot, but what Hecht also does is to give each of these lead characters specific premises (their beliefs that they choose to act on) regarding their romantic love. The two lovers’ romance premises are: Devlin can’t forget Alicia’s tramp past, so he won’t declare his love to her. While Alicia in turn believes that because Devlin won’t declare his love he doesn’t truly love her. It is these specific premises about their love value that are intrinsic to Devlin and Alicia’s internal conflicts and that cause the relationship conflicts between them. These premises also impacting their mission to stop the Nazis.
As the film’s main plot line of Devlin and Alicia working together to defeat the gang of Nazis progresses, Alicia and Devlin become torn between their values and premises. On the one hand, both support the mission to defeat the Nazis, Alicia because of her patriotism, and Devlin because of his patriotism and career as a federal agent. But this mission value directly conflicts with Devlin and Alicia’s premises about their love.
We watch in suspense as Devlin and Alicia are forced to make choices between their mission and their love. Each choice and action Devlin and Alicia take to attain their mission goal escalates their internal conflicts and the romantic problems between them. For example, because Devlin can’t express his love to a former party girl, his silence presses Alicia more and more towards her dangerous assignment to befriend the Nazi villain Alex (Claude Rains): From meeting him, to sleeping with him, to finally marrying him.
As Alicia makes these ever harder and more dangerous choices to support the mission, Devlin’s mistrust of her romantically becomes more entrenched, pressing him to further support her assignment and to reject the idea of her as his lover. All while, as Alicia becomes more deeply involved with her assignment, the threat to her life from the Nazis increases.
Great suspense flows from the dramatic high-stake questions that Hecht and Hitchcock press into our minds: Will Alicia be found out by the Nazis and killed? Will Devlin reject his insecurity and save Alicia? Will Alicia reject the mission and thus save herself and love Devlin? Will the Nazi plot succeed because of Alicia and Devlin’s romantic problems?
Alicia and Devlin’s internal conflicts are fundamental to Notorious. They are what make it a drama, rather than just an excellent suspense thriller. The film’s great conflict and drama, however, would not be possible if Hecht and Hitchcock had not so explicitly conceived and so well set up and conflicted their lead characters’ values and premises. Many scripts and films today would be much more dramatic if their writers and producers more carefully developed their characters to have explicit high values and premises and knew how to complicate these.