Writing Excuses 11.40: Elemental Drama
Key Points: Drama as an elemental genre focuses on a character’s journey and transformation, and how this affects everyone around them. Character transformation is elemental drama. Coming-of-age stories, descent into madness, whenever a character learns something and changes. That is the driving force that keeps you reading, how is this character changing. Drama often starts with a downward slope, but it does not have to have a tragic ending. Drama often has a catharsis, a release of tension as we experience the change. As writers, use progress, the try-fail cycle, to keep the reader engaged. Also, make the characters interesting! Many dramas have other elemental genres supporting it. The downward slope is often where the character is broken down to allow rebuilding. What are the beats in a drama? Tearing down or showing what’s broken. Also showing what is not broken. Showing the moment of decision that starts the descent. Something that shows they can succeed, that there is a capacity and a spark. Often there is a character who shows what the main character needs to succeed. Often there is also a foreshadowing or example of what happens if they fail.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Drama As Elemental Genre
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We are tweaking this one a little bit. We are going to define genre, in this specific instance, is dealing with a character’s journey and transformation. Now a lot of dramas are going to cover multiple characters doing this, but for our elemental genre, we want this to be the genre where we talk about how someone changes. The big example that Mary brought up in our kind of brainstorming and talking about this is King Lear. King Lear is the story of King Lear’s descent into madness and how he transforms as a character in a tragic way through the course of the story.
[Mary] Also how that transformation affects everyone around him. I think that that is one of the key things with drama as opposed to a lot of other things… A lot of the other things, like a relationship, affects those two characters. A drama affects everybody.
[Brandon] It does. Very much so. You’re kind of focusing on something is changing or has just changed. How is this… How does this affect the people around them?
[Mary] I mean, we talk about this in terms of fiction, but you also know, there’s a person in your life that you think, “Oh, such a drama queen.” It is because that personal change, that personal descent, is affecting everybody else.
[Brandon] Yes. Most definitely. I really like drilling in on this idea, because a lot of books are really about someone’s transformation.
[Howard] Let me give the listeners a quick out. It is very easy for you to take issue with the fact that our definition of drama is not your definition of drama. Let’s use the word drama for these purposes as the hook for character transformation. We’re talking about the element of character transformation, and we’re calling it drama.
[Brandon] We’ve done this with all of them. We talked at the beginning of the year that these definitions will not line up with classical definitions of genre, because we want to talk about what drives a story in a very specific way. These are stories that are driven by one person’s transformation.
[Dan] Yeah. Coming-of-age stories…
[Brandon] Coming-of-age stories.
[Dan] Fall into this category. Descent into madness like you were saying. Anything where a character learns something, they become a better person. That kind of stuff.
[Brandon] Where that is the main driving force…
[Brandon] For you continuing to read the book.
[Dan] Well, that is why, for example… Here’s another thing people might argue with us. The original Battle Star Galactica I would call an adventure story. Whereas the reimagined one is absolutely a drama, because the focus of the storytelling is on the characters changing.
[Brandon] Yup. Yeah. I can agree with you 100%.
[Howard] Into Cylons.
[Mary] Only some.
[Brandon] I would say most of the television genre of drama, where they categorize it as drama, has real elements of this too. Wha… Who are these people? How are they changing? Relationship totally is also a valid way that you would look at this, but I would say that some of the great stories ever written… Ebenezer Scrooge and all of these, the great characters are powerful characters because it is the story of their transformation.
[Mary] I want to say that one of the things that will happen a lot with drama is that that initial transformation is going to be a downhill slope. Often. That it starts… Things get worse and worse and worse and worse. But just because they get worse and worse and worse in a drama, something that is dramatic, doesn’t mean that you have to have a tragic ending.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, we don’t tend to think of dramas as fitting into the epic archetype. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about. You have this crossing of the threshold and descent into hell, and then eventually on apotheosis, where you become better and you have changed in some way.
[Brandon] Exactly. In a lot of ways, like you mention the Greek journey there. That’s what all of these were. In fact, this is what almost all Shakespearean tragedies were, with a tragic ending, was this here is this person. We’re going to show how they transform and that effect on say, the house of Denmark, and things like that.
[Mary] I think that one of the things that the reader is signing up for when they’re looking at this transformation is actually the, to use another classical term, the catharsis. That you are signing up, and the reason it is about the personal, that we’re saying this is the main driver, is that that connection to the character who is going through the transformation, experiencing that with them, that cathartic experience, that is what you’re signing up for.
[Howard] I’m glad you brought that up, because when we first introduced the elemental genres, one of the commenters was like, “Well, where’s the element of catharsis?” Catharsis isn’t an element, catharsis is a component, and it is a component of the element of drama. You don’t have elemental genre unless you have the catharsis.
[Brandon] So let me ask you this. You mentioned that a lot of these stories have a downward slope at the beginning, which I absolutely agree with. How do you, as a writer, make it so you can have a downward slope without turning the reader away from the character or from the story?
[Mary] I think that it’s with a sense of progress. Again, looking at King Lear. The sense of progress is not a happy sense of progress. But you see the characters making attempts to deal with the situation, and none of the attempts work.
[Howard] But we’ve already got a name for that tool. It’s the try-fail cycle. We’re applying it to whatever it is that is making this character become something else. As they try whatever, as they fail, they are transformed. With each iteration of the try-fail cycle, they are transformed. As we empathize with their efforts, we follow them through the transformation. We will follow them down, and when they try and begin succeeding, we will follow them back up. If you can build a good try-fail cycle, you can make this work.
[Dan] Well, this is a genre that is so character focused. You have to make sure there is a good character at the heart of it. The movie As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson. He’s a deplorable person, but he’s a very entertaining person. So this journey as he kind of learns friendship and learns how to be a better man… We’re with him, even through that initial downward slope, because he’s funny and he’s biting and he’s sarcastic and we like him.
[Brandon] Well, that plays into learning why people are turning the page of your book. What is driving them through it? With that, I would say it’s page-by-page, entertaining, interesting character, so the whole competence level on him is just through the roof, mixed… In certain ways. He’s certainly incompetent in other ways. Mixed with a trajectory. A sense of progress, that looks like a downward… Well, it is a downward slope at the beginning, but then it turns into a relationship story as the story progresses, where we say, “Oh. He needs these other people.” It’s really a drama with subset relationship, but he needs other people, he can’t just be alone in his room. We accept that. So we feel this catharsis by the end of it.
[Howard] I think it’s worth noting that some of our favorite dramas, some of the ones that have been the most successful, are ones in which other elemental genres are playing strong supporting roles. Relationship is super common, but humor is also… I mean, As Good As It Gets, relationship, humor, and drama are our key elements.
[Brandon] No, I… The thing about the elemental genres is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a story that is only one of these. Once in a a while, you can. I do believe that the… Well, Christmas… What is… The Ebenezer Scrooge story…
[Mary] Christmas Carol?
[Brandon] Christmas Carol! I couldn’t remember the second word. I do believe that’s probably just solely a drama. But…
[Dan] It has funny stuff in it. I don’t know if I’d say humor as a subgenre, though.
[Brandon] At the same time, it’s going to be very hard to pull out most stories and say it’s only one.
[Dan] It’s horror as a subgenre.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, it’s horror as a subgenre. You’re totally right.
[Mary] I would say that that is definitely true when we’re talking about long form.
[Brandon] Yeah, short forms…
[Mary] In short form, you will frequently find something that is just one.
[Dan] Is just one thing.
[Brandon] Thank you for reminding me again that stories… That stories that aren’t 400,000 words exist.
[Dan] That short stories exist.
[Howard] That novels of 40,000 words exist.
[Mary] I’m still very proud of the fact that I did once manage to teach you to write a 4000 word story.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah. I did write one.
[Brandon] One. I have written one.
[Mary] I’m very proud of that.
[Brandon] One character, one scene…
[Howard] Can you expand it into something longer?
[Brandon] One event and done.
[Brandon] But let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Brandon] Dan, you’re going to tell us about Ink and Ashes.
[Dan] Yes. Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani is a great book that I recommended to Brandon a month or so ago, and he really liked it, so yay! It is a young adult contemporary novel, kind of thrillery, about a Japanese-American girl who real… discovers this secret past that her father has, and kind of delves into it. Really great storytelling, really great character, and…
[Brandon] Pacing. The pacing is excellent in [inaudible] book.
[Dan] It is. It has won more awards by itself than my entire career combined. It’s only been out for a year or so. Really great stuff. Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani.
[Brandon] Highly recommended from both of us.
[Brandon] All right. So. Let’s talk about… Oh, go ahead.
[Dan] I wanted to say, before we totally left the subject of the initial downslope. The reason that that exists in a drama story, as we’re defining it, is that the character has to be broken down so that he or she can rebuild themselves. So I think that that’s also a part of what will keep the reader hooked during that initial part, is because of that kind of painful deconstruction.
[Brandon] Trajectory is interesting, even if it is downward trajectory.
[Dan] So we’re watching this person, we’re watching the initial state that they are in and that they like, start to fall apart. We kind of sympathize with that, so we want to watch. We want to see them fix that problem.
[Brandon] Well, that plays exactly into what I was going to ask, which is what are the beats for a good story, character arc story like this? One of them definitely is the kind of tearing down at the beginning, the showing… Sometimes it’s very quick, sometimes it’s a little slower, but showing this is what’s broken in their life. This is where that hole is.
[Mary] I actually think that this is one of the places… I mean, yes, we need to show what’s broken, but a lot of times with dramas you have to show what isn’t broken.
[Brandon] Yes, you’re right.
[Mary] I mean, again, using King Lear as an example. This is the king. It is that moment of decision, that moment where he’s like, “I’m going to…”
[Brandon] Right. I’m going to do this thing. Even after his daughter is like, “You shouldn’t do this thing.” He’s like, “No, I’m going to do this thing. You should not tell me not to do this thing. In fact, you are exiled…” Or disinherited or whatever he does to her.
[Mary] It is very much… And again, you’re right, you do not have to spend a lot of time. Like please, do not spend 1/3 of the novel showing us how wonderful their life is. But you do need to have a little bit of what their life was so that you understand what they’re losing.
[Brandon] I would say on… Since we’re talking about beats, another thing you need, you need that seed that they’re capable of this, there is something in them that can go wrong for King Lear or that can go right, even as you’re breaking them down. To say okay, they’ve got it. I believe and have hope that this person can become the person they need to be. You do that through subtle cues. You show that there’s some capacity that needs to grow, but there’s a spark there. You show through tone the state that you want them to be in at the beginning… err, at the end from the beginning.
[Howard] This isn’t a beat, it’s a tool. If there is a character in the story who looks like or who exemplifies the attributes that will save our character so that you can show us what that looks like and place it out of reach. The reader can see it but our main character is not there. It’s a way for you to tell us that that exists, that that might be the solution to the problem. You’re not defining our character in terms of the people who are around him, you are teaching us how to define them.
[Dan] I wanted to say quickly that not all of these stories require these kinds of flaws. One of the flavors of this, like we said before, is the coming-of-age story, which is more often than not… Is about a relatively innocent child kind of weathering external obstacles and becoming better for it. So they don’t necessarily have…
[Brandon] Their only flaw in that case is ignorance.
[Dan] Yeah. And naïveté and that kind of thing.
[Mary] One of the things that I was thinking of was a piece that you need at the beginning, or a piece that is useful at the beginning with drama, is that there is often in a drama as we are defining it, a foreshadowing of the failure state. With coming-of-age stories, there’s usually the kid, the stories about the kid who did not survive this transformation. King Lear, you have the fool actually as foreshadowing.
[Brandon] Yes. You totally do.
[Mary] Daredevil, I would argue that Kingpin represents the foreshadowing of… In the television series. The foreshadowing of where Daredevil could wind up.
[Brandon] Well, I mean, if it is the same thing with Batman. Most of the villains represent the darkness inside of him, that if he were to fall, that’s where he would be.
[Mary] Darth Vader.
[Brandon] Absolutely, absolutely true.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and give some homework. Mary, you’re going to give us some homework?
[Mary] Yeah. So we’ve been talking about the foreshadowing of failure state, and frequently in dramas, you have a character who represents that failure state. We talked about the fool, we talked about the dropout druggie kid in the coming-of-age stories. So I want you to do is I want you to look at something that you have recently written, and go back and insert a character. Make them integral. Insert a character who represents the failure state for your protagonist.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.