Monday, June 29, 2009

The Dramatic Center

Recently I was asked by two editors to write a chapter for "their" book — a book written by others, but with the editor's names on the cover. I've never thought this was a very good idea. And sure enough, this was one time when the more I discussed the chapter with them (by email) the more I felt they were typical charlatans. What tipped the scale for me was when the chapter that I wrote for them for free, they refused to allow my book's website URL in my bio. Enough. A couple of the values I value are fairness and generosity. The editors and I had a conflict. The essence of all good stories. So I told them: "End of story. No, you can't use my essay."

So, here it is, I'm at least generous, but not a sucker.


The Dramatic Center - the Conflict of Values

The dramatic center of any story is the conflict between two opposing values. Discovering what those values are, which drive your protagonist and antagonist against each other, is critical to knowing what your story is about, and how it begins and ends.

When writers come to me for help because their story doesn’t resonate, often it’s because the conflict is not centered around a central opposing pair of values. Many writers will construct a story around a physical conflict, but fail to realize that for the story to organically connect with an audience the physical conflict must be rooted in opposing psychological mind-sets or moral values. Never forget that all physical or visible action begins with a psychological decision, and that decision is rooted in a value. Stated another way, no action can occur without first being motivated out of moral ideals.

Consider that 9-year old Toby wants a dog, but his mother has said, “No!” The explicit premise or physical storyline might be: “Toby tries to persuade his Mom to let him have a dog.” That’s what the movie is “about.” But what is it “really about?” What are the values that Toby and his Mom each hold that cause them to be in conflict? Is it that Toby loves dogs and his Mom hates them? Not likely. You have to go deeper and examine the human conflict in terms of universal values, or the things people hold true regardless of culture.

For example, Toby and his Mom may be in conflict over the difference between slothfulness and orderliness. Mom knows Toby pretty well and she doesn’t think her son will pick up the backyard after a dog’s droppings, and Mom, in the same backyard, is trying to hang clean laundry on the line to dry. Yikes! Or, perhaps the story is about keeping promises vs. breaking promises. Toby promises to take care of his messes, but Mom always ends up picking up after him.

The other dimension of such conflicts is that society, in general, will value one of these traits as morally good (cleanliness or keeping promises) and the other as morally bad (slothfulness or breaking promises). The values that allow society to make progress are called virtues, and those that degrade society are called vices. Thus, the story of Toby and his Mom is really a story of moral values, or to be precise it’s about a moral premise. While the physical or explicit premise is about taking care of the dog, the psychological or implicit premise is about taking responsibility. And it is those psychological values that drive the protagonist and antagonist to conflict and thus create drama.

Once you figure out what the essential conflict in values is, you’re story will write itself. Suddenly you will know what Toby’s character flaw is (he’s a pig pen and he loves it) and what Mom’s character virtue is (she keeps a clean house and she loves it). And now you can write out what is called the story’s moral premise around which every creative aspect of the story will flow. It could be something this simple as this: Slothfulness leads to Loss; but Orderliness leads to Gain. And the question for your plot is this: Does Toby’s values change or do Mom’s values change? And what are the physical consequences?

Understanding the heart of the moral conflict in your story, and how the consequences flow from the virtues and vices involved, will forever liberate you from writer’s block.


Let’s look at one of those great stories you’ve started but could never finish. Take one out of that dull gray filing cabinet in the corner, and let's see if we can fix it.

Process the following steps iteratively. That is, repeat them until the answers to each step are in sync with the others, and when repeating the questions your answers do not change.

1. Revisit a story that you’ve given up on. Scan enough of it get it fresh in your mind.

2. Write down the protagonist’s physical goal. Make sure it’s something the audience can visibly see and root for, or against.

3. Write down the value that is driving the protagonist toward that goal. Note, if the protagonist is a “bad guy” the value is likely a vice.

4. What is the value opposite the value you wrote down in No. 3? Your answer to this question should be the motivating value of the antagonist. Is it? If not, fix it.

5. Write down the physical consequences that naturally (in reality) follow the practice of the values you identified in Questions 3 and 4. Is your story consistent to this “truth and consequence?” Or is the consequence contrary to the vice or virtue practiced?
Now, a word of caution on this point. Understand the difference between your voice as the screenwriter or filmmaker and the voice of the story. They are not necessarily the same, especially when it comes to ironic endings. CHINA TOWN is a good example. The story’s voice says that evil wins, but the filmmaker’s voice rejects the evil, and claims the movie a tragedy.

6. After thinking about the story you’ve dragged out of the dust pile, see if you can create a true moral premise statement for the story that you want to tell. It should be structured like this:

[a moral vice] naturally leads to a [detrimental consequence] but
[a moral virtue] naturally leads to a [beneficial consequence].

Formulating such a statement will tell you everything you need to know about your story and the motivation of all its characters.

8. Repeat these steps until they are in harmony. Now rewrite the screenplay. You’ll love it.

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