Drama and Stories

by F.

In his book The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Science Revolution, Howard Gardner summarizes some research on story schemas. A story has at least one character about which the story teller generally does the following things:

  • Tells us the goal of the character
  • Tell us about the steps taken to get to the goal
  • Describes what happened then those steps were undertaken
  • Describes and comments on whether the character succeeded or failed in reaching the goal.

For instance

Alice wanted to go over the river and through the woods to her grandmother’s house to have tea. She left early in the morning and crossed covered bridge, then wound her way up Scary Mountain until she could see the valley below, in which her grandmother’s house sat. She started down the other side of Scary Mountain, but just as she was about to reach the valley, she was attacked by a bear. The bear tore off her arm and began to gnaw on it. Luckily, while the bear was preoccupied, Alice staunched the flow of blood and ran like hell. She made it to grandma’s house just as the water for tea was boiling.

I like the four-point schema above, but there is an even simpler—and, I think, more useful, formulation of the story scheme:

  • Someone wants something badly and is having trouble getting it.

This is from Frank Daniel, and is repeated, among other places in David Howard’s book The Tools of Screenwriting. What I prefer about Daniel’s formulation is that it captures the idea of opposition, which is one of the two essential ingredients of of drama (the other is willfullness). It’s not just that shit happens along the way to grandmas; it’s that Alice wants to get there and is opposed by the bear.

This is why a chronology isn’t dramatic. Have you ever listened to someone tell an “And then… and then… and then” story? It’s dull. Even if the events couldn’t be reordered, it’s just boring. Because there is no willful pursuit of a goal in the face of opposition. This is drama and it gets our emotions involved.