Drama, as you know from high school, can be defined as an exciting series of events. Writers know that definition to be woefully inadequate. Stringing together a series of events, no matter how scintillating, death-defying, or fantastic, can amount to a big ol’ bag o’ dull unless those events are dramatizing meaningful story points.
Writers also know the pain of rewriting to someone else’s notes when those notes are event-based and miss the underlying motion of the story. But there’s hope! We can more effectively discuss how to handle revisions by grabbing firm hold of the purpose of each scene and relating its crux to the real story events as they unfold.
So, like, what’s all the drama?
To dramatize is to choose action and dialogue that reveal the inner workings of a character or situation. Events without emotional stakes as their underpinnings often spin out in a “yeah but what’s next” fashion. Perhaps the concept is best explained by an example:
I’m working on the story of a boy who’s tired of moving from city to city, fed up with making new friends then losing them, and who wants nothing more than to drop out of his life altogether…or so he thinks. In introducing him, I have options. I can put him in his new house, moping hard enough for his dad to ask him what’s wrong, and then have him say, “Dad, I’m tired of moving from city to city. I’m fed up with making newfriends. I just want to be left alone.”
Sure, that gets his state of being across but what if all that could be communicated without a single word? What if he sat amidst unpacked boxes, wistfully fingering a catcher’s mitt and ball? What if his dad walked in and they struck up an impromptu session of catch (the event) even though dad couldn’t catch if he were tossed a beach ball at close range? And what if the boy’s initial surge of enthusiasm at the offer of a game faded into disappointment and the dejected burying of the mitt and ball at the bottom of a box labeled “GOODWILL” before shutting the door to his room? Here, the game of catch does the work of conveying the boy’s dejected-hopeful-dejected transition without a word spoken. What does it get you? Dramatizing moments such as this one allows your audience to take in information almost subconsciously and buys you their attention when your characters have something important to say.
To make the internal external is to dramatize.
Similarly, say a story has a series of high action sequences involving multi-vehicle explosions, fireballs, and innumerable “exciting” events yet it leaves the audience cold. That’s likely because those death-defying moments favour external, plot-related story points more than they address what any one character stands to lose.
It’s a balancing act. When your trusted readers react favourably, then you know your screenplay, novel, memoir, or short story strikes a great balance between action and emotion.
These are my personal observations, not rules from any handbook. Does this idea ring true with you?