The viewer can expect an exciting story. Dramaturgy therefore has only one task: it must support the narration of a story in the best possible way. She is responsible for the way this story is told. Here we show you how it works.
As with almost all things in film, dramaturgy is not a book with seven seals. There are experiences and silent agreements between the filmmaker and the audience.
- The dramaturgy must allow the optimal narration (storytelling) of a story. All their tools serve only this purpose.
- The content of a story can be shaped by dramaturgical requirements. Strictly speaking, however, it belongs to story forming.
- The most important means of dramaturgy are as simple as they are proven: Surprise, contrast and delay. In addition, playing with differences in knowledge has also proven to be an efficient element in creating tension.
Dramaturgical tips and tricks for even better storytelling
In the end, as everywhere else in film, the same applies to dramaturgy: it is easier and more sensible to know, study and at best break existing rules than to try to completely recreate a functioning world out of ignorance.
These are listed in this article (as always without any claim to completeness). The article is aimed at beginners in the subject and not at professionals and dramaturges or representatives of theatre science who have blindly mastered the tools of dramaturgy even in the darkest night.
What is a functioning dramaturgy?
If the film reaches the majority of the intended audience, the narrative structure works.
Man is also the reason why almost all dramaturgical rules have existed for what feels like an eternity. Man always wants something new, but as a harmless variant of what he already knows. Radical innovations and hard breaks with tradition irritate the audience more than they please them.
Suspense is only possible if the audience is offered fields of tension in addition to identification with the plot. These include:
The way the surprise works is so banal that one is almost ashamed to call it. Nevertheless, it almost always works. A surprising turnaround can be made not only in terms of content, but also as a cut to another picture or scene.
Let’s take a classic from 1933 as an example: The audience knows that the crew of the daring captain is looking for a giant ape. The expedition fights its way through the jungle. And suddenly, out of nowhere, a tree falls on the path.
A small excursus: In the American horror film such frightening elements used to be systematically “built in” so that young lovers in the cinema had the opportunity to (apparently) be frightened and seemingly seeking help on the first date to grab the hand of the other person.
2Contrast / Opposites
Contrast almost always works. Even for the storytelling in the image film. It is almost a panacea for dramaturges. It arouses the curiosity of the cinema-goer. In the best case, the desire for an explanation arises, for example when a man who has confessed to his crime suddenly flees from a mouse. This follows at a later point in the film.
In the case of Kong, by no means a mouse, this means of dramaturgy is used in the same way as in the dramaturgy: Civilization against the natives, black against white, progress against preservation, man against nature, work against sweet idleness. Big versus small. Strong against weak. Not and reason was the name of the film classic in the German version: “King Kong and the white woman”. The contrast is friendly greetings.
The viewer knows what will happen. The plot and all the details have prepared him as carefully as skilfully. All signs indicate: what will happen is inevitable. Fate. No one can change it. And it will happen. Soon. In a minute. In the next few seconds … – and then something gets in the way of the unchangeable, which delays what must happen. This is the third trick from the dramaturgy kit for film and video: delay.
The delay can also be applied at the script stage or in film editing. In this case, the solution to the problem is postponed by a parallel action. For this to happen, the delaying parallel action must be credibly constructed. This is the only way to keep up the curiosity about what is coming.
American bestselling authors like James Patterson (over 100 million books sold in 40 languages) have perfected the delay to absolute mastery. Her books are regarded as so-called pageturners, because the plot is so excitingly constructed that the reader can’t help but turn the page and continue reading.
Example for the use of a retarding dramaturgy
In the story of the great ape on the island, this means that he pursues the invaders. They don’t stand a chance against the monster that inexorably approaches them. If a tree stands in the way of the giant ape, it tears it out, unlike the island visitors, who can only with difficulty find an escape route through the jungle.
Already the men (with their eyes wide open, the sound film was invented six years ago, but the facial expressions of the silent film have not yet completely left the world of celluloid) hear the monster’s breath, see its rotten yellow teeth in the gorilla’s furiously torn open throat seconds later – when out of nowhere a hungry, prehistoric giant lizard, looking for a snack, pounces on the pursuer seeking revenge.
The heroes gain distance to the monster monkey again, because the monster monkey first has to defeat his new adversary, the lizard. As soon as that is done, the pursuit continues and the game starts all over again.
A modern example of delay in action
The principle of delaying action is still frequently and regularly used today in car chases:
The distance between the hero and the pursuer decreases more and more, before suddenly a level crossing comes and the bad guy slips through just under the barriers. If the scriptwriter doesn’t have a car at hand for his main character, a metro or subway, whose doors close at the last moment, also helps. Dramaturgy can work that efficiently and easily.
4Ignorance of the main characters
Another extremely important emotional element in storytelling is the knowledge advantage between audience and performer. If the audience and the main actors have the same amount of information, they embark on a journey through the film plot together. There is no knowledge gap.
It gets more exciting when either the characters in a film or, even better, the cinema audience, have a knowledge advantage: We know what’s happening, but we can’t stop it.
Hitchcock has wonderfully summed up his favourite means of dramaturgy in a very well-known quote:
Suppose there’s a bomb under this table between us. No harm done. And then suddenly: “Boom!” There’s an explosion. The cinema audience is surprised. Until then it had seen a very ordinary scene, which has no special meaning. Now we use the dramaturgy: we invent an exciting situation. Explosives are under the table. The viewer saw the person who placed the detonator there. He is aware that the bomb is set to go off at noon. That’s why there’s a clock in the decor. Everyone can see it’s a quarter to twelve. Thus, the same harmless conversation before the explosion becomes a torture because the moviegoer becomes emotionally immersed in the scene. He wants to warn the characters: “Don’t talk about such trivial things. There’s a hellish machine under the table. It’s about to explode!”
Without the foreknowledge that a bomb is ticking under the table, one is frightened by the explosion. This horror (a consequence of the application of the mechanics of surprise) lasts perhaps fifteen seconds. In the opposite case, the tension can be kept endlessly, Hitchcock was of the opinion that for fifteen minutes (instead of fifteen seconds) the attention of the audience would at least be guaranteed.
It follows: Whenever possible, the viewer should know more than the characters in the film. But of course only if the surprise is not the turning point itself, the climax of a story.
More about dramaturgy and storytelling
Further books on dramaturgy and storytelling can be found in the article Gute Filmbücher.