Is drama a genre? “Of course it is!” you’ll all shout at me. After all, it’s listed on IMDb isn’t it? Well yes, but have we come to use (and misuse) it as a catch-all for a piece of fiction that isn’t quite any of the other genres? Be honest?! What about that time when you wrote an exciting story but realized it wasn’t quite action or adventure or thriller so figured it must be drama? Well, you’re not alone but rarely does that way of thinking about the genre of drama lead to great scripts or great movies.
Drama originally meant the enactment of any story on stage and was divided into comedy and tragedy. So technically if you’re telling a fictional story about a character for film or television it is drama. It was only in the late 1800s that ‘drama’ began to be used to refer to a performed fictional story that was neither comedy nor tragedy. Today genres are accepted as being a way of categorizing films so that audiences know what to expect. As our use of genre to categorize films has developed, so too have audiences expectations of what those genre films should deliver.
Fictional television shows in the US tend not to be categorized as genres for the purposes of selling them to audiences (just look at the home pages for NBC, ABC, Fox and even HBO) but that doesn’t mean that the Execs aren’t acutely aware of the genre mix of their drama output. In the UK there is a heavier use of genre to ‘sell’ shows. The BBC categorizes its dramas by genre on its online catch-up service and ITV, the UK’s most commercial free-to-air broadcaster, is even more genre-aware. With both, drama as a genre is most definitely used interchangeably with ‘other’. As a Development Executive in UK television I would often hear new projects referred to as either ‘genre,’ by which we mostly meant crime/mystery/supernatural/sci-fi or non-genre, by which we really meant Drama.
Feature films in the UK and the US, by contrast with television, are massively genre-aware and with good reason. Studies consistently show that along with ‘who’s in it,’ ‘what is it?’ (by which people mean what genre is it) is frequently the top question determining film choice at the movie theater. But in my experience, too often writers haven’t really got to grips with the genre of their screenplay, and if you want to sell your script, knowing what genre it is and, crucially, delivering on the expectations of that genre are essential.
All too often I read scripts that aren’t any genre. I don’t mean that they’re mixing genres - that’s fine - I mean they literally don’t deliver on any conventions of any established genre. When I point this out I get the reply “it’s a drama” as if, as long as it features a few characters and a few things happening then it fits in the drama genre, so that’s ok. Well, it’s not! If you think that ‘drama’ is a catch-all genre for anything that doesn’t fit in any other genres you’re pretty unlikely to have a box-office hit on your hands or be taking home an Oscar® for Best Original Screenplay.
All good films elicit emotional responses in their audience and while some genres refer primarily to the way in which they do this (a thriller is thrilling, a horror is horrifying, a comedy makes you laugh) others refer to the world of the film (Western, crime, fantasy, science fiction). The joy of drama, unlike many other genres, is that it dictates both the way in which emotion is elicited and the world that the film inhabits.
Think about the great movies that you would categorize predominantly as drama; Kramer vs Kramer, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, It’s A Wonderful Life, Million Dollar Baby, Schindler’s List, My Sister’s Keeper, Walk The Line, Milk, Brokeback Mountain.
Drama delivers the emotional and relational development of realistic characters in a realistic setting. It offers intense character development and tells an honest story of human struggle. Maybe that’s why drama films are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards more often than any other genre.
Does your drama screenplay really delve down to deliver a powerful emotional story? It’s not an easy task. So many tools that other genres have at their disposal to elicit an emotional response from audiences don’t apply in a drama. You can’t get a ‘wow’ from your amazing (possibly CGI-created) location (adventure), you can’t get the audience to hold their breath from your awesome stunts or explosions (action) and there is no excitement or fear from a dark, spooky castle (thriller). But somehow, without those elements, your drama screenplay has to take your audience on an emotional rollercoaster every bit as compelling as those other genre movies.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking drama is an easy catch-all genre - it’s not. If you want your screenplay to genuinely be a drama, approach it as you would any other genre – know what’s gone before and understand the demands of the genre. Learn how to make your story work as a powerful movie that delivers on the expectations and conventions of that genre. In a great drama, character and story is everything. Is your drama screenplay really taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster ride? If it’s not, it isn’t ready to be presented to the market as a drama screenplay but if you keep working on it, maybe yours will be winning that Best Original Screenplay Oscar® in a few years time!
- More Script Angel articles by Hayley McKenzie
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- Specs & The City: Mixing Genres and 'Shaun of the Dead'
- Good in a Room: 17 Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Hollywood Rookie
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