WRITING GUIDANCE – WRITING A DRAMA SCRIPT
Before writing a drama script, you first need to know what drama is. You may have watched a stage drama, better known as the theatre. What is meant by drama and what distinguishes it from theatre? Why is writing a drama script different from writing a novel, and what differentiates a stage drama script from a television drama script?
WHAT IS MEANT BY A DRAMA?
Drama is derived from the Greek word “dran” which means “to do” or “to act”. Drama is mimetic action, that is, action imitating or representing human behaviour. According to Aristotle, drama is an imitation of life, a cultural mirror and a reflection of truth. The American College Dictionary defines drama as “a composition in prose or verse presenting, in pantomime and dialogue, the conflict or contrast of character on stage.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, drama is defined as “a composition in prose or verse adapted to be acted on the stage, in which a story is related by means of dialogue and action, and is represented, with accompanying gesture, costume and scenery, as in real life.” For Aristotle, the plot was the prime mover of a drama, and the drama must be constructed from three unities, namely action, place and time. These elements categorise drama as a branch of literature. In addition to the elements of literature, drama includes other elements of the arts such as acting, music, architecture, fashion and dance.
Drama is not only to be read, but also to be acted on the stage, with different interpretations for its reading and performance on stage. Therein lies the difference between drama and theatre. A drama is a script that can be read on its own without the need for space, actors or other artistic support. When a drama script is acted out on the stage in combination with various other arts before an audience, it is called theatre.
A drama script is different from a novel, a short story or a poem. In novels and short stories, the reader will be given a detailed description of a situation and the background for a particular event, whereas in a drama script, the reader will be given only an overview (general description) of a particular situation and the location or place. The dialogue will deliver the message and thoughts of the author. This is what distinguishes drama from other literary works. Indeed, the nature of a drama is driven by dialogue. The author’s thoughts or ideas are conveyed through dialogue by the actors (characters) interacting in a drama. A good drama script will be able to give a clear picture of the author's thoughts through the dramatic elements in the resulting dialogue. Dramatic element means the diction or expressions that can create conflict in a drama, such as dialogue that elicits feelings of anger, delight, amusement, etc. A good drama should have an element of suspense, tension and be able to arouse the curiosity of its reader or audience.
STYLE AND CHARACTERISATION
Drama is an art form with the most social traits. Its very nature demands teamwork due to the inclusion of other artistic personnel and also because of the immediacy of reaction from the audience (which is different from the reaction of a movie or television audience). A drama script is fixed and permanent in nature as a whole, but each time the drama is performed on stage, the production of the text (script) will undergo changes. This is because the actors will react differently to different audiences, and also the mood of the actors is different in each show. The combination of fixed values and variables give the theatre an edge and distinguishes it from drama that is recorded mechanically, such as on film, radio drama and television drama.
FEATURES OF DRAMA
Generally, drama has the following features:
• Drama is a modern prose produced to be read and staged.
• Drama can be in the form of prose or poetry.
• Drama consists of dialogues and characters created by the author.
• The thoughts and ideas of the author are conveyed through dialogue by the characters.
• Conflict, which is an important element in a drama script, is driven by the characters in the plot.
• A script that is not based on conflict is not considered as a good drama.
• The style of language in a drama is also important because it shows the setting and the society it represents, thus drama reflects the socio-culture of the society described by the author.
STRUCTURE OF DRAMA
In principle, drama has a three-act structure. From the Greek tragedy and Elizabethan (English) drama to modern drama and film screenplay, the structure of all these scripts is divided into three parts. This may be compared to human life from birth to adulthood and death.
Before embarking on any form of writing, a solid foundation is necessary. This is because a strong foundation will support the structure, concept and vision of a drama. It will produce a solid framework or creative work that will not easily become fragmented. Absence of a strong foundation will produce only frustration, impasse or, that which is often said to be writer’s block.
An impasse occurs because of the lack of planning. Without planning, it is difficult for the author to find the right direction or way to proceed with a story.
The three important elements that must be given focus by the author before writing a script are:
To ensure coherence in a story, the characters and the way they function require focus or concentration regardless of whether the storyline is linear, non-linear (spiral) or parallel. Consistent strong focus will make the process of writing easier and smoother. Focus requires a number of considerations. The main consideration is knowing the characters (who are they?), their backgrounds, natures and development. Focus also requires the characterisation and overall storyline to have a clear goal in the end.
When we produce a story with all its characters, themes and locations, we are actually involved in creation. Every character, theme, time and location has its own rules; it is like creating a new world. That is why a playwright is often said to create worlds. But what kind of world is being created? What is the life there like? Drama adopts or imitates reality (life), but what kind of reality? The reality of a drama must be viewed in the context of the story, characterisation and theme. This is where the logic of the drama is measured.
Character and Characterisation
In a good drama script, the characters must be able to carry the story further. The characters are the story, and it is they who give life to the story. Thus, the characters are the most important element in a drama. They drive the plot. In a drama, there are main characters and supporting characters. Often a drama has one main character, but a drama may have two main characters - the protagonist (the character espousing the ideas of the author) and the antagonist (the character opposing the ideas of the author). This contradiction of ideas creates conflict which brings about a dramatic effect to make the story interesting. Supporting characters are other characters that support the protagonist or antagonist or characters that complete the story.
ELEMENTS OF DRAMA
The elements of drama that prospective scriptwriters need to be aware of are:
The theme is an idea or an issue that can be summarised from the overall essence of the story. The issue is what the author intends to convey in the script. This thought is delivered through dialogue and the action of the characters. The discerning reader or audience will be able to grasp the idea or issue after reading the script or watching the theatre. In fact, they often grasp not only the idea or theme of the drama, but also other underlying messages or meaning in the drama. These underlying thoughts, which can only be interpreted by the thinking reader or audience who understands the symbolism or story elements presented by the author, are called sub-texts.
The plot is very important in the construction of a drama. It is built through the dialogue and actions of each character. The dialogue is constructed of words or language. Through dialogue, conflict and the development of the story take place. As mentioned before, conflict plays an important role in developing the structure of a drama. With conflict and tension, an event is driven and developed to its conclusion. The plot is not a story or a narrative. According to EM Forster, a story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence”. The plot is the storyline which provides information about the story. It is developed by the characters and through cause and effects that occur in space and time.
Writers need to understand that in a theatre performance, an important task is the ability to attract and hold the attention of the audience for as long as possible. A plot must be able to attract attention and create suspense, and this is where the dramatic structure is focused. The hopes or expectations of the audience or reader must be built (and fulfilled only in the final scene), action (scene) must seem to almost reach its objectives but not until the end of the scene, and most importantly, a plot must have diversity (variation) of rhythm and tempo. A monotonous plot will only cause the audience to lose interest and make the story bland and lacklustre.
There are several forms of suspense or tension that can be created in a script. These basic questions can be used as examples when starting on a script, “What will happen after this?” or alternatively, “I know what will happen, but how will it happen?” or “I know what’s going to happen and I know how it will happen, but how will character X respond or react to it?”
These basic questions should occur in the early part of the dramatic structure of the script so that the reader or audience will be prepared for the key elements of suspense in the drama. It could be said that the main theme of a drama must be clear. However, in a good drama script structure, it lies in the question. For example, who committed the murder, who will finally win the girl’s heart, or what happens when the husband realises that his wife has been unfaithful and has a lover?
When the audience or reader discovers the theme and issue as well as the objective of the actions, their focus will then turn to the ending of the drama (conclusion) and the direction the story is heading. Attention is focused in the right direction.
However, it must also be noted that the audience has a short attention span. One major suspense element will not be sufficient to hold the audience’s interest. Therefore, a drama script structure requires additional suspense which will support the main suspense element. Additional suspense is necessary for every act or scene in a drama, which will eventually merge with the overall momentum of the drama structure.
In developing the plot, each character moves within the framework of cause and effect. An event occurs due to valid reasons and produces a reasonable result. It is a law with its own logic. Therefore, a writer must ensure that the actions of a character are appropriate to the character’s background, place and time, and event, and that the resulting effects are reasonable.
The elements of place, time and era as well as the society in the story are usually described in the background. It is important to give the background of the drama but the details are limited. It is only required for performances on the stage to explain the place and time, just enough to give an overview to the reader or audience. Compared to film or television, stage drama faces constraints in changing the set or props in different scenes.
An act is the part of a drama which explains the events that take place in a particular location and time. A change in the place and time will result in a different act.
A scene is a part of an act which explains an event that occurs in a particular location but at a different time.
The basis of a drama is words or dialogue. Drama is built by dialogue and action. Therefore, the language that forms the basis of the words is a very important element of drama. Through the language spoken by the actors, the author’s thoughts and ideas are conveyed. A good drama uses language that is simple, concise and easily understood by the audience. A language or dialogue style that is verbose and difficult to understand will cause the readers and audience to become bored and eventually lose focus. A good language style in a drama will indicate the background of the era, the society and the location. Thus, the dialect of a region can be used to make the character come alive, on condition that the readers and audience are able to understand it. The strength of a character is reflected in the quality of the spoken dialogue. Characters who fail to project a strong, humorous and interesting dialogue will have difficulty in capturing the attention of the audience. Therefore, the choice of diction, sentence or language is an important element in holding the interest of the readers and audience of a drama.
Economical, emotional and balanced
Overall, the structure of a drama depends on the balance of all the elements. Each of the elements must contribute in the form of design and pattern of the drama. The elements are always inter-related and mutually dependent. One aspect that must also be addressed by the scriptwriter is the economical factor. This is because drama is a form of communication where the element of time plays an important role. Therefore, the time factor should be noted. In addition, drama includes the emotional aspect as it is produced for humans and emotions play an important part in human communication.
Types of drama
In general, there are three types of drama:
• Tragedy – A drama that tells the bittersweet and tragic life of its main character. The hero often suffers a tragic end. In this drama, tragedy is the main story.
• Comedy – A drama that is told in a humorous and entertaining manner. Its content is serious, but delivered in the form of humour by the characters. This type of drama is often used as satire to ridicule society. The plot of a comedic drama may end satisfactorily for the audience or it may also end in sorrow. This type of drama is also known as a tragic-comedy.
• Melodrama – This drama is sentimental in nature and the story is often centred on family or women’s issues. It will usually affect the reader or audience emotionally.
Format of Stage Drama Script
The stage drama script has its own format. The standard format should be followed when writing the script so that it can be easily read and understood by the director. More importantly, it will show that the writer understands the genre. In the script writing format, you need to include the following:
• Title page containing the title of your play, author's name (your name), title of the original source (novel) if the drama script is an adaptation, name and address of the publisher (if published) and the year.
• Synopsis. You need to write a synopsis or summary of your drama (about 150 words). It should provide information about the characters, themes and storyline, and most importantly, be able to attract readers to read your drama script.
• Characters and list of characters – You need to provide a list of characters in your drama as well as a brief description of each character, such as physical form, age and certain characteristics.
• The breakdown of scenes is also required.
• An act or a scene takes place in a particular location, time and involves certain characters. Therefore, the location, time and characters must be identified before a scene starts.
• There are several different types of format or style of typing the script. Look at the style of several scripts that you have read. The following is an example of how a stage drama script is written. It is an excerpt from chapter 12 of the drama, Patah Sayap Terbang Jua, written by Othman Haji Zainuddin, an adaptation of the novel, Patah Sayap Terbang Jua, by A Samad Ismail.
12. A ROW OF SHOPS/SINGAPORE/NIGHT
Wahab enters. He stands under the dim street light. Inah follows behind. For a while, she observes Wahab’s behaviour. From afar, music can be heard coming from several lighted houses. Wahab whistles softly and sings a keroncong song, Kemayuran.
Kiri jalan, kanan pun jalan
Nona manis endung disayang
Lateralala lala lala….
Di tengah-tengah pohon mengkudu
Pesan pun jangan
At this point, Inah joins in
INAH & WAHAB
Pesan pun jangan
Inah claps. Wahab is surprised to see Inah by his side.
INAH: Ada apa Hab, kau nak jumpa aku?
WAHAB: Banyak perkara.
INAH: Apa yang boleh kutolong?
WAHAB: Kau tolong aku seperti kau tolong Hashimoto.
INAH: Tolong Hashimoto?
After reading this piece, it is hoped that you are able to gain some knowledge about the method of writing a stage drama script. It may not be enough to turn you into a good scriptwriter as this entails a lot of observation of society, reading a lot of good drama scripts and watching a lot of theatre, but it should be enough to get you started on writing a script.