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Film and Dramaturgy

Film and Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy ^

Dramaturgy is the knowledge of how to choose, apply and structure narrative elements to tell a story. As a tool of storytelling it is based on the analysis of narrative works. Since ancient times people tried to understand the elements and structures of myths, legends, fairytales and drama and then started to set down this understanding as principles. This is how basic plot emerged in a cross-cultural way that corresponded with human consciousness. Aristotle was the first to point out the interrelation between ways of storytelling and the raw human experience of its audience. He declared the recipient to be the benchmark of narrative skills and application.


Cinematic Dramaturgy ^

Cinematic dramaturgy offers the principles and tools for the most effective composition of a story in combination with a film’s visual and audible narrative channels. The audio channel is further divided into speech, sound and music. Because film as a medium harbours numerous narrative, spatial and temporal possibilities dramaturgy counters its boundlessness with a demand for selection and effectiveness. Its understanding of effectiveness contains two aspects: economical reduction as well as maximised impact. Dramaturgy aims at creating specific audience impressions at every moment of the story which requires that it remains invisible within the film. Therefore its mechanisms are extremely pragmatic. The central question is: How can a specific story be told in the most impressive as well as condensed way? Possible effects of a story are: pleasure, understanding or unsettledness and accordingly humour, tension and emotion.

Dramaturgy deals with the classification and perspectivation of storylines as well as the measuring and timing of story information: At what point, in what way and to whom is information presented? Is the information disclosed at once or gradually? How can a conflict be resolved most effectively? What is the function of each narrative unit? Does a scene move the action forward or is its role already fulfilled elsewhere?

Dramaturgy puts the single elements of a story into a dramatic structure independent of their chronological order. At the same time it steers the audience’s perception and reaction. Yet cinematic dramaturgy doesn’t just cover the process of story and script development but also covers all creative areas of filmmaking such as the directing of actors, camera, sound, mise-en-scene, montage/editing or music. Furthermore it enables an authoritative and verifiable understanding of a film’s narration.

Dramatic Storytelling ^

According to Aristotle dramatic storytelling is a mimesis – i.e. a performed imitation of ‘true’ life realities in form of a storyline: the world is translated into a structure that can be communicated to others in form of a story. Conflicts are handled through the use of characters in order to extract a basic truth about life. Because of this replacement principle and the claim of truth the audience is able to obtain pleasure, understanding and cathartic release from the mimesis.

The fictional narration doesn’t follow the criteria of world realism or the requirements of logic, naturalism or mathematical probability. The crucial criterion is the authenticity within the created world – i.e. within the parameters which the story itself established within its exposition; whereby the world knowledge and the narrative knowledge compete with each other. A narrative trick is to create doubt within a character only to settle it within the story for the benefit of the audience.

The story needs to be immanently plausible and organic. In a movie something impossible may be more believable than something possible. Objectively speaking most happy endings are probably quite implausible, yet they can seem true. That’s when they’re ‘bigger than life’. However coincidences are often met with audiences’ disapproval regardless of how much they are actually a part our daily life. They’re only accepted when they occur at the beginning of a story or when they create a disadvantage for the protagonist, i.e. make her journey more difficult rather than easy. Only when dispositions and character motivations turn into turning points or result from the laws of the created world do they become believable for the audience.

In summary the challenges of cinematic storytelling are:

  • turning situations into actions
  • visualising abstract incidents through scenes
  • personalising structural storylines
  • presenting character motivations
  • achieving authenticity and plausibility

Self-contained Story Structure ^

The self-contained story structure is based on the understanding of a story’s ‘completeness’ and defines it through a definite beginning and ending: at the beginning of a story a stable situation is brought into motion and at the end this motions congeals into a new solid condition. Therefore the self-contained story structure is based on the 3-act-structure.

The linking of single storylines follows the principle of cause and effect. The narrative objective is to create a plot that develops and escalates from within. Ideally each incident ensues from the former action: It is a direct consequence or result of the action before. And this action inevitably leads to the next one: ‘Because…therefore…’ The plot moves forward in a way that makes the individual steps mutually dependent and non-exchangeable. This causal coherence between single scenes is also called the dramatic storytelling principle.

Yet in practice it doesn’t exist in such pure form because even a self-contained drama needs a few epic elements. Because of these needs the development of a self-contained structure is constantly torn between the constructed and the organic, between storylines and character dispositions. The challenge is to embrace both aspects.

The self-contained story structure satisfies the following basic human needs and desires within the audience:

  • Order and orientation
  • Development
  • Closure and harmony
  • Completeness and coherence
  • Meaning and realisation: everything one does has consequences.
  • Accessibility and simplicity: interconnectedness becomes visible.
  • Solution: conflicts are resolved .

The self-contained story structure constitutes the foundation for specific structure styles.

Open Story Structure ^

The open / epic story structure is based on the idea of film as a fragment, a tessellated narration without an overriding (act-)structure. The story starts in medias res, without character or setting exposition. Equally the story breaks off abruptly at the end without closure to the storyline(s). The point open story structure is trying to make is that a story or theme cannot be told or dealt with in a concluding or comprehensive fashion. It is quite characteristic for epic structure designs that scenes stand for independent episodes and therewith for themselves or the overall problem of a story. It offers primarily condition-based events and situations rather than actively induced plots where characters act according to their true nature. The linking of incidents follows the construction principle of a string of events – ‘and then, and then…’ – as well as the theme of the film. Depth and concentration derive from elaborate theme successions and narrative islands in form of thematic and aesthetic clusters. Possible turning points within the story are not exposed or dramatized. An epic story structure demands active participation from the audience because it doesn’t offer as much guidance as a self-contained structure. The open format is suitable for pure comedies as well as free, episode-based, experimental or documentary material of all lengths.

Further ReadingFurther Reading

• Aristotle: Poetics.
• Rabenalt, Peter: Filmdramaturgie. Berlin 2000.
• Klotz, Volker: Geschlossene und offene Form im Drama. Munich 1960.

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