Film & TV

How to Write a Dramatic Screenplay: Drama Script Writing Tips

Written by MasterClass

Jul 30, 2019 • 5 min read

Drama is a form of writing that originated in ancient Greece. While today’s dramas have moved from Greek amphitheaters to Hollywood sound stages, the basic elements of writing a drama screenplay still remain the same.

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What Is a Drama Screenplay?

Drama marks the division between tragedy and comedy. A drama can take place anywhere with any characters in any time period; it’s not the setting that makes a movie a drama, but the tone. Dramas are serious, full of conflict, and continually push the boundaries of the plot by raising the stakes. Depending on the sub-genre of the drama, the story can range from a forbidden romance to a murder investigation.

What Is the Basic Structure of a Dramatic Screenplay?

Drama movies follow a clearly defined narrative plot structure and contain literary elements—like characters, setting, and style—that help viewers analyze and interpret the story:

  • Exposition: Set up and introduce everything through exposition, which lays out the background information of your story. Outline the main characters, setting, and time period. One way to get through exposition in your screenplay is to have at least one curious character act as a proxy for the audience: That character can ask questions that the audience might have, thus clarifying various plot points.
  • Rising action: Introduce the story’s main conflict with the rising action, which are a series of events in the story that create tension and build to the climax. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the rising action happens when Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet’s intention becomes clear—to avenge his father’s death—and the story begins.
  • Climax: Build to the height of tension, and reach the turning point for the main character. Usually, the climax of a story takes place when the main character has to face the truth and make an important choice.
  • Falling action: Show the result of what happens when the main character makes an important choice. The falling action is when loose ends are tied up, the tension dissipates, and the conflict gives way to resolution.
  • Conclusion: Close the loop on the story. Show how the tension affected the characters and the world around them.

Aristotle’s 6 Elements of Drama

The laws of storytelling were first outlined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics (c. 335 B.C.), the earliest surviving philosophical treatise on dramatic structure. Storytelling evolved with technological advances and the introduction of motion pictures, but Aristotle’s laws of storytelling and six main dramatic elements are still relevant:

  1. Plot: the storyline, and what happens during the film. Learn about plot here.
  2. Theme: the overall meaning of the film. Learn about different movie themes here.
  3. Characters: the players who move the plot forward. Find the 12 archetypal characters here.
  4. Dialogue: the words the characters speak in the film. Find dialogue tips in our dialogue writing guide here.
  5. Song: traditionally, the rhythm of the actors’ voices as they deliver their lines.
  6. Spectacle: the visual elements and technical elements of the film, including body language, facial expressions, sound effects, and special effects.

6 Modern Sub-Genres of Drama

As you become more familiar with writing dramatic works, experiment with the various sub-genres to find your niche:

  1. Historical drama: a dramatic period piece set at least 25 years in the past about a historical event or time period.
  2. Romantic drama: a drama that focuses on a complex romance where there’s something preventing two people from being together, like family tension or being married to someone else.
  3. Crime drama, legal drama, and procedural drama: dramas about how crimes are solved.
  4. Medical drama: a drama set in a hospital, clinic, or another medical environment.
  5. Sci-fi drama: a drama enhanced with elements of science fiction, such as a futuristic setting or advanced technology.
  6. Docudrama: a drama that features dramatic reenactments of real-life events

10 Tips for Writing Drama Screenplays

Here are a few tips to help strengthen your scenes:

  1. Lay out the theme to your entire movie right away in the first scene.
  2. Every scene and series of events should move the plot forward.
  3. Clearly show each character’s intention and obstacles right away at the start of a scene.
  4. The exposition should be clear in every scene, but it shouldn’t impede the story.
  5. The stakes should be high and clear in every scene.
  6. Grab the audience as soon as you can. Try dropping them into the middle of a conversation between two characters—it forces them to pay attention and play catch-up.
  7. If you’re introducing a character in a scene for the first time, show the audience what that character wants.
  8. If a character doesn’t want anything, they’re cluttering up your screenplay.
  9. Not every scene needs to end dramatically, but you should feel satisfied with how it does end.
  10. If you’re struggling with what the next scene should be, try using it to answer a question posed in a previous scene.

10 Dramatic Screenplays to Read for Inspiration

These critically-acclaimed screenplays have all won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. Study them as expert examples of how to structure your dramatic story:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941). A film that combines various storytelling techniques—flashbacks, multiple points of view, a non-linear narrative—into one film. Citizen Kane was one of the first films to depart from the traditional linear narrative and was groundbreaking at the time of its release.
  2. The Godfather (1972). A movie that turned the gangster genre on its head by focusing on the mob from the inside. The Godfather launched a long, successful career for Francis Ford Coppola, who both wrote the screenplay and directed.
  3. All the President’s Men (1976). One of the most successful and critically-acclaimed book-to-screen adaptations in modern cinema.
  4. Terms of Endearment (1983). A great example of how to tell a story that spans 30 years and how to effectively blend humor with heartbreak.
  5. Rain Man (1988). A character-driven movie that focuses primarily on the unique relationship between estranged brothers, one of whom is an autistic savant.
  6. Schindler’s List (1993). A groundbreaking period piece about the Holocaust.
  7. American Beauty (1999). A complex film analyzing the American middle class and a culture’s standards of beauty and love.
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). A movie that blends multiple genres into a non-linear narrative.
  9. The Social Network (2010). A film written by Aaron Sorkin that uses the origin story of Facebook to explore themes of friendship, jealousy, and class structures within society.
  10. BlacKkKlansman (2018). Spike Lee’s example of how a biographical film can provide cutting commentary on current events.

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