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  • What Elements Make for a Good Dramatic Screenplay?

    January 8th, 2010

    Some say comedy is hard. And they’re right. But in my opinion it’s not as hard as crafting a good, successful, engrossing drama. Why? Well, even the dumbest of comedic gags or basest of jokes, will inevitably make someone laugh and be entertained. But a good drama has to do so much more than that. There’s a reason why almost 50% of the Oscar Winning Best Pictures in the last 80 years have been dramas.


    There is something powerful about a story that just wraps around you and sucks you in, making you forget your own problems and forces you to care about those of an often fictional character or at least someone to whom you have no personal connection. There’s something powerful about a story that can reduce your father to tears – or an audience of fathers. There’s something timeless about a good story that can make you think, reflect, feel, and react emotionally. And this is what a good dramatic screenplay should do.


    So how do you achieve that type of reaction? Well, it’s not easy.  But there are some keys to crafting a good dramatic screenplay. Let’s look at some examples of Oscar Nominated (or winning) dramas and see if there are any trends you notice. Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Titanic, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Mystic River, A Few Good Men, Crash, Shawshank Redemption, The Queen, Apollo 13, Dead Man Walking, The Insider, Traffic, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.


    What do these movies have in common? There are three different trends and categories I’ve found.  First, there are true stories. Often the most dramatic stories are the ones that have actually happened or are based on actual events/people. The world is full of drama. However, the stories that movies are made about have something extra. They have broad appeal and national recognition, perhaps even historical significance. There’s something commercial about them, something that connects instead of detracts. The writer will take an event (or person or story or societal issue) and find an interesting and commercial hook they can explore to create a new angle on the story and those involved.  Some true stories expose something about people or an event or society as a whole that is unexpected, intriguing or brings something to light that has never been seen in that visual way before. From the above list, Titanic, Schindler’s List, The Queen, Apollo 13, Traffic and The Insider would all qualify under this trend.


    The second trend is epics. Oscar loves the epic and executives love big projects that feel like a whole new world is being created. Having a sweeping feeling means you are swept away by the story to a different place. Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, The English Patient, Braveheart, Elizabeth, Cold Mountain, etc. These are all sweeping epics. To be an epic, a script must have that sweeping feel to it, it almost always takes place in a different time period, it must be big budget, have action, romance, drama, numerous or at least large locations, a good number of characters (though only 2 or three strong leads), etc. Now, if you’re a first time writer, do yourself a favor and don’t write an epic. It will not sell and it will not do you any good as a first and only writing sample. Save it for after you’ve made your first sale.


    The third and final trend is that great dramatic stories start with great characters. Forrest Gump, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River, A Few Good Men, Crash, Dead Man Walking, Milk, The Wrestler, etc. It was the character – and the portrayal of that character through brilliant acting – that brings out the true power of the story and makes it connect to an audience. The story of Slumdog Millionaire was a universal, tried and true, rags to riches love story but without the setting (which was the most important character) and those little kids that the audience just fell for, that story wouldn’t have won anything.


    If your drama doesn’t have a juicy, complex, emotional, heart-wrenching, personal, intelligent, connectable role for an actor – it’s dead in the water.  A good dramatic screenplay has characters people can relate to and ones that come off as genuine – like you can understand exactly why they are doing what they are doing or feeling what they are feeling, etc. Same with dialogue – in a good drama, the dialogue is slightly heightened but it feels authentic – like it’s exactly what we would say in that same situation (though perhaps more verbose and intelligent – it is a movie after all). And as a side note, don’t be afraid to inject some comedy into your dramatic scenes. Except for Schindlers List, every single drama listed above has more than one moment of levity.


    However, there is one thing that every good drama needs no matter what the story is. It’s more than a trend – it’s the mandatory ingredient – CONFLICT. Drama is based on conflict. And not just any conflict, but one that is powerful, relatable, and complex enough to propel a story forward and help develop characters. The story has to be constantly progressing and increasingly more involved as dramas are the most likely genre to get stale or boring. So many ideas for dramas just aren’t BIG enough, so they feel slight on the page. If there is no tension, no conflict, no build to something powerful, then your script is BORING. I can’t tell you how many scripts I read where the writer thinks there is conflict, but alas, there isn’t nearly enough for a feature. There needs to be an immediate tangible conflict, a personal aka internal conflict, an inter-personal conflict AND an overarching conflict. And your story should bring all of these together in interesting and commercial ways. If you only have ONE of these, you don’t have a good dramatic screenplay.


    Now, recently dramas have been on the decline. Why? Because everyone has drama in their real life, so it’s not what they want to see on the screen. However, movies like “Precious” will do well because it actually makes most people’s drama seem not so bad. Audiences either want to be completely entertained or made to think their life doesn’t suck as badly as other people’s. And if there was only ONE drama produced per year, you could bet it would still be nominated. So, search for the conflict, the story or the character that inspires you, grabs you and affects you – and if you can’t find one, make one up. And keep writing!


    (Article was originally published on Storylink and can also be found at



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