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5 Ways To Inject Drama and Engage your Audience

5 Ways to Inject Drama

By Armaan Uplekar

The word “drama” is conventionally defined as “an exciting, emotional, or an unexpected series of events or set of circumstances.” As it relates to film and writing in general, drama is the essential engine that drives all stories and it can take many shapes and forms; its Brody’s failure to protect the townspeople of Amity from a killer great white shark in Jaws. Its Michael Corleone’s decision to avenge his father’s attempted assassination in The Godfather. But one thing is for sure - drama is the cornerstone of all your favorite films and it’s what keeps you interested and engaged for two hours. Drama must be at the core of every page you write, every decision your character makes and every sequence that transpires. It doesn’t matter if you write sci-fi or comedy, period romance or western, there must be inherent drama to drive the story.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to stir up drama when you’re writing your own feature-length screenplay. The moments that might seem inevitable when you watch Citizen Kane or Unforgiven are anything but foregone conclusions – creating moments of intense drama are an absolute necessity to note-worthy storytelling, but they can be tricky to put into practice.

There are, however, five ways any writer can flavor their storytelling with added conflict and elevated dramatic stakes, to increase your chances of grabbing people’s attention. Here are five simple ways you can inject a healthy dose of drama into your next screenplay. 

Lean into Confrontation

Don’t be afraid to put two likable characters at odds. When writing a dramatic screenplay, one of your goals should be to make sure that sparks fly early and often. In order to do so, you’ll want to create characters who are poised to clash with one another. Confrontation is the fundamental building block of drama and an essential engine for the films you love. Don’t pair your hero with agreeable supporting characters – aim to challenge them and ramp up the drama by making your protagonist interact with characters with hard-to-reconcile perspectives, and people who don’t give anything away easily. It doesn’t matter if it’s love or information, make sure it is earned.

When you set up characters to butt heads with one another, you make your audience lean forward. Consider La La Land a musical about two young artists in a relationship with one another striving to make it in their respective careers. Part of what makes this story feel like it pops on the page is that the relationship between Sebastian and Mia is anything but agreeable – their various confrontations give the script a great element of drama and keep the story from feeling repetitive or too simple.

Put Obstacles In Your Hero’s Path

Speaking of simple, it’s your job as a writer to complicate your hero’s journey. Every story involves a character wanting something – money, self-fulfillment, love. But if their journey doesn’t contain obstacles, there won’t be any drama to keep our interest. If a journey is easy, it tends to feel boring. Who wants to see a character attain a goal without any obstacles?

That’s why it’s so important to create problems that will complicate your hero’s goals and make their quest to attain those goals feel more arduous. If the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings flew to Mordor on the backs of the Great Eagles, what would be the point of the story in the first place? We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the many conflicts and character moments that make Frodo and Sam’s story so indispensable and memorable. Obstacles create drama which translate to stakes. If your character desires success, litter their journey with circumstances and temptations that would prevent them from obtaining it. Never grease the wheels in their favor – if you want compelling drama in your story, you need to make your hero work hard to overcome anything and everything that is opposed to them.

Derail the Journey

Speaking of obstacles: there’s no greater source of drama than absolute failure. That’s why it might be worth considering derailing your hero from their journey or goals all together, more than once. When your protagonist hits rock bottom, you force them to reckon with their flaws and shortcomings. They are place in a position where they must doubt their ability to rally and overcome. This moment – “the dark night of the soul” – is the part in the character’s journey where they are forced to make a choice. Will they accept failure, or fight to win?

To put it simply, derailing a character on their journey brings excitement to a story. Whether it be a secret agent’s failure to stop an arms shipment or a man forced to watch his lover decide to pursue a relationship with someone else, derailing a character’s journey lets your audience know that actions have consequences and that your story has stakes. It gives your audience (as well as your hero) a glimpse of what losing looks like, and asks the all-important question: what will they do next?

Apply Red Herrings

Red herrings are another classic way to increase the drama in your story. Red herrings are essentially a form of misdirection. They might take the form of a police detective focusing on the wrong suspect of a murder investigation, or a treasure hunter drastically misinterpreting the coordinates of a long-lost artifact. They can be used to make your hero come to a false conclusion.

Now you might be thinking: what’s the point? If all a red herring does is distract my protagonist, why bother with them at all? It’s a valid question. But the real value of red herrings comes with the consequence they wreak on the story. If your detective gets the wrong man thrown in jail, what fallout will ensue? How will it affect the characters and the rest of the story when the detective realizes the error of his ways? Red herrings, at their best, force characters to make decisions and alter their way of thinking – and watching a character have to reckon with change is a cornerstone of great drama.  

Add a Ticking Clock

Introducing constraints into your story is an excellent way to dial up the drama of any given situation. A ticking clock does just that – it forces your heroes to make their decisions with an additional undertone of suspense and urgency. There’s a reason why movies like The Hurt Locker and The Dark Knight are so acclaimed for the way they keep the dramatic punches coming. These movies take the concept of the ticking clock quite literally, forcing their characters to work within a pressure cooker situation.

It can be helpful to think of a ticking clock like this – when you’re forced to meet a deadline, doesn’t the way you work inherently change as a result? You might be more focused or you maybe more desperate. You might lock into your goals, or the stress might be enough to push you to the brink of your mental faculties. These are all dramatic responses that occur because of limitations put on the way you operate.

Now just imagine putting these time constraints on your characters; ask yourself the question of how they might act differently, or how a ticking clock might influence the story. Whether the situation involves a groom potentially not showing up in time for his own wedding (The Hangover) or a catastrophic weapon being detonated on the streets of Gotham (The Dark Knight Rises), a ticking time bomb forces characters to act under the most dire of circumstances, putting them well outside of their comfort zone and ramping up the drama in kind.

Conclusion

Now you can see, there are several ways to inject drama into each scene of your screenplay. By complicating your character’s journey, it is important to remember that the eventual arrival will feel that much more earned and satisfying, not just for them – but for your audience as well. That, ultimately, is what good drama is all about!