Crafting the Dramatic Idea, Part One

Posted by on Jun 8, 2014 in Blog


In my previous blog, we answered the question “where do ideas come from?” Now that we hopefully have all have written our idea down into once sentence (culled from a high concept, adapted from another source, or from our dreams or personal experiences), let’s focus on constructing this idea dramatically.

First, a few words about drama. By “drama” what do we mean? When we hear that something is “dramatic” what first comes to mind? “You’re being so dramatic.” We’ve all heard this, or something close to it, directed at us or perhaps we’ve said it to others. But what does it mean, to be “so dramatic?”

It wasAristotlewho famously attempted to answer this question in his fragment, “Poetics.” (Fragment because the 40-page treatise cuts off at the end, implying that a larger work has been lost to the ages). In “Poetics,” Aristotle refers to tragedy (a form of drama) as “the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.” To understand what Aristotle was getting at, let’s break his definition down into its various components.

“Imitation of an Action” means just that. It’s not the action itself that drama is showing, but an imitation, or fabrication, of something that could be real. In other words, drama is made up from the ideas we discussed earlier. In the case of my idea, the imitation of the action would be around “two women who accidentally end up in the same cooking class.” Now, even at this early stage, I can see that there’s a problem here. Can you guess what the problem is? I’ll reveal what I think the problem is later in this blog.

“That is serious,” in the case of Aristotle’s definition, refers specifically to tragedy, because this is what “Poetics” is focused on—it was Aristotle’s belief that out of all the forms of ‘Poems,’ (storytelling he witnessed during his lifetime, including song, dance, comedy, lyric poetry, epic poetry), it was Tragedy (from the Greek tragōidia, or “goat song”, which is thought to derive from the cry of a goat being sacrificed to the gods) that was the highest and noblest of the art, the one that best revealed the true nature of humanity. But “that is serious” could just as easily be substituted for “that is funny” if one were working out a comical story. For instance, I can imagine that my cooking story idea might have elements of comedy in it, and so I just might choose to substitute “serious” for “funny”.

“Complete” in the sentence means that the idea is structured within the framework of a finite period of time. Simply put: it starts, it happens, and then it ends. As we get further into the construction of our idea first into a synopsis, then a treatment, and finally into a screenplay, we will see that we must clearly understand the beginning, middle, and finally, how the thing ends, and that there are particulars to the craft involved in each section.

“Of a certain magnitude.” What Aristotle means here is that in drama, the imitation of the action must be heightened on an emotional level, if it is to be worthy of telling.

“Of a certain magnitude” is another way of considering this modern screenplay question: “What’s at stake?” An inverse way of looking at this is by considering that the closer to real life the action is, the more boring it could be to the viewer/reader. Why? Because there seems to be something hardwired in us that makes us respond to heightened drama, tales of intrigue, danger, or as Aristotle put it, to those “better or worse than we are.” The more dramatic the tale we’re hearing, the more at stake, the higher the magnitude of our emotions. Aristotle described this as “pity” and “terror”. Think about an instance when you’re telling a friend about something that you observed, or heard about, or are rehashing a movie you just saw. Think about how you describe this story to them. How you embellish it, how you make sure it is told “of a certain magnitude” by using elevated voice, gestures, getting into various characters, or whatever else creatively you can think of to keep your listener wanting to know the answer to this question: WHAT’S AT STAKE?

This, of course, is the hard part of drama: how to keep the reader/viewer interested in what you’re telling. This is what separates the millions of ideas we all have into those few amazingly dramatic stories that live through the ages. This is also, by the way, why you should never concern yourself with whether someone is going to steal your idea or not. Because, as I said earlier, ideas are a dime a dozen. But the execution of an idea into something that’s powerfully dramatic..? Well, that separates the great storytellers from the rest of us.

“The imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.” Once we put our idea through the mill to see if it has Aristotle’s criteria, we can then move on to the business of crafting it into a dramatic logline.

Let’s consider my idea, based on a dream I had:

A story about two women who used to be best friends, but are now arch rivals, who accidentally end up in the same cooking class.

I mentioned above that I already see that there is a problem with my idea around the imitation of an action. What problem is that? Well, simply, I have not clearly defined an action in the idea. “Accidently ending up in the same cooking class” is a situation, not an action. Action implies doing. And so, before going any further, I have to answer just what the action of my idea is. By the way, if at this early stage in the process I can’t find an action that excites me, that thrills me into wanting to spend weeks, months, and years on the story? Then this is where we abandon the idea, and move on to the next. Because if you don’t have an action in your idea at this early stage, it won’t suddenly show up later down the road. It’s either here now, or it probably never will be.

Another way of putting it: someone (the protagonist) has to do something (imitation of an action) to achieve something (a goal).

Stab at it #1: A woman enrolls in a cooking class to try and win a top-cooking prize.

My first question is this: why does she try to win? What if she HAS to win? This ties us to Aristotle’s “certain magnitude,” or “what’s at stake,” meaning that if I can find a way that her winning HAS to happen, even making it a matter of life or death (maybe, for instance, she could win a significant cash prize that she needs for a life-saving surgery), then I stand a better chance of emotionally engaging the reader/viewer.

Stab at it #2: A woman takes a cooking class in order to poison the instructor.

Now we’re cooking (pun intended), because the part of me that appreciates a good, dark tale loves this idea. And it has a built-in “certain magnitude” because the minute you introduce poison, we’re obviously talking about a life or death magnitude. It also has the advantage of being both potentially tragic as well as comic; darkly-comic if you will. And it’s certainly complete, meaning at the end, someone is going to be poisoned dead, or not. So, I think I’m going to go with the second version from above. Here is what I’ve come up with:

The story of a woman who enrolls in a cooking class with the sole purpose of poisoning the renowned instructor, who also happens to be her ex-best friend.

It’s still a bit messy but I’m starting to see potential there. At this point, you the reader should be doing the same with your idea(s). Put it through the ringer and see if you can get it to have answers in the affirmative for the following questions (answers to my own idea are in the parenthesis):

  1. Does it have an imitation of an action? (Yes, a woman will be attempting to poison her instructor during a cooking class.)
  2. Is serious? (Yes, it’s certainly serious, but also, possibly, with elements of comedy.)
  3. Is it complete? (Yes, it takes place over the course of a single cooking class.)
  4. Is it of a certain magnitude? (Yes, it begs the question: “Will she succeed in poisoning (killing) her instructor or not?” or “will she get caught?”)

At this stage, truth be told, I’m on the fence with my idea. Partially, because it’s starting to sound a lot likeDeath Becomes Her,a movie I simply love, but I don’t know if I’m interested in imitating it. However, since my idea feels like it has the makings of perhaps a good short film (as opposed to a feature script—later we will discuss how to differentiate between short ideas and long ones), for now I’m going to stick with it. But I stress this to you: DO NOT FEEL COMPELLED TO STICK WITH YOUR IDEA. Trust in the fact that you will always have more ideas, and what you’re looking for at this early stage is the story idea that you MUST TELL.

In the next story blog, we will craft our dramatically improved idea even further into a dramatic logline that we can then test out by verball