When I first got into filmmaking my understanding of a dramatic beat came from what I saw on soap operas. These were extreme, over the top and they were always punctuated by a cheesy camera move on the character delivering the bad news. This moment was usually followed by a couple of close up reaction shots and ultimately a cut to another scene or a commercial break.
While this is an overt example of a dramatic beat, everyday interactions also involve dramatic content. Creating drama in your story is the life blood of story and dramatic beats are the cyclic units that create energy and move the story forward. Similar to an exciting car ride, we need enough power to climb the hills of exposition, enough speed to make our turns dangerous and keep our passenger fully engaged.
Without Story Momentum We Have No Journey (tweet that)
Like a car engine, story momentum needs fuel, but instead of sparking compressed gasoline vapors, it pressurizes conflicts and sparks dramatic events. This explosion ultimately moves the characters and the audience into the next unfolding event.
This image as well as some of the concepts I’m sharing here come from
Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics
Story Momentum and the Internal Combustion Engine Metaphor
Here’s where it’s helpful to use the metaphor of an internal combustion engine introduced by John Howard Lawson in his book Theory and Technique of Playwriting (Hill & Wang: New York 1960)
First is the setup. The engine piston is pulled down. This creates a void and draws combustible fuel vapors into the cylinder chamber as it recedes. Similarly, our story’s event sets up character objectives, obstacles and other elements ripe for conflict.
Next is development. The engine piston begins to rise, compressing the vapor as it rises. Things in our story begin to develop, conflicts arise and things heat up. Tensions increase and pressure in the cylinder is at an all time high.
Then comes crisis/beat. The cylinder compressed with fuel is sparked and the explosion occurs. This force drives the piston down, turning the crankshaft and ultimately moving the vehicle forward. Our story’s dramatic event sparks a crisis point and explodes. Everyone including, and maybe especially, the viewer has a new and irreversible understanding of should happen next.
Finally result. This new understanding creates a void and moves the story to the next event based on the audience’s unquenchable thirst for answers to the ongoing “what will happen next” series of questions.
The cycle continues. Some characters move closer to their objectives and others move farther apart. A dramatic beat passes. This creates momentum and a void for new a collection of new story elements to interact. Our protagonist encounters new obstacles, creates new alignments and the viewer connects another series of dots.
Has the director set them up for a surprise or will he pay off a series of past questions by connecting some dots and letting story glide for a bit? Too much excitement and you’ll wear the audience out, too little and they’ll become bored.
You’re the director, so you’re in control of what dots they have access to. You’re in control of the subtext. The story engine is at your command even after the screenplay is written.
The story engine is at your command even after the screenplay is written. http://t.co/n4yxezN5bW
— John Holser (@JohnHolser) March 5, 2015
How are your driving skills? Do you like using metaphors? Do you have anything to add to this metaphor? If you liked this blog I’ve got few more that focus on understanding story form a directors POV. Check out these links. Are you a Director Struggling with Story Structure? Your Film Stinks, Get Real What Does Your Audience Want from Your Film? How I Stopped Making Soulless Films?