Dramatic Potential, Organic Execution, and Power

Now is as good a time as any to explain one of my pet peeves, as a writer (note: this was excised and repurposed from a review of the Suicide Squad comic… which sort of spoils my feelings on it, I know). Your main tool for story momentum is drama. Drama doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic, per se; sometimes it’s about tension, or suspense; to paraphrase Hitchcock it can be more exciting waiting an hour for the bomb to go off than the few seconds of the explosion. But think of drama as kinetic potential energy, you’ve lifted a bowling ball over your head, and all you have to do to release that energy is let go, and gravity will do the rest.

So, say you have a pair of roommates. One is closeted and gay, and the other is outspokenly homophobic, but at least outwardly the two are friendly and seem to like each other fine and get along. That’s already a story with some interesting dramatic potential there. Dramatic potential doesn’t dictate how the story plays out, it just dictates the important points for the story to cover. Examples of ways this could play out: 1) the gay roommate may come out to his homophobic roommate and that causes him to reexamine his phobia and change his ways; 2) the homophobe realizes that his homophobia was always to mask his own sexuality, and the two become romantically involved; 3) the gay roommate confronts the homophobe, eventually having to physically fight him to stop him victimizing others. This list is of course not exhaustive, but as you can see, the drama inherent in those relatively simplistic character dynamics set the two of them on a collision course within the story.  

There is drama inherent in all of us, in our situations, in our needs, in the things we can’t stand. A good story doesn’t introduce potential drama, whether in the form a character flaw or a dynamic, that it’s not going to pay off in some way. This is basically applying the principle of the Chekov gun more broadly to all of the different constituent elements of drama in a story. It’s also recognizing that, especially in long-form story-telling, comics and TV in particular, part of this skill is in recognizing where remaining deposits of drama still lie; usually within the first year or two of a show, or by the end of the second movie in a franchise or second book in a series, you’ll have exhausted most of the drama you initially planned for, in all of your outlining. But there are still nuggets there. The reason why a character remained unmarried, the reason they’re adamantly against having children of their own, the reason they’re a Libertarian even though they’re not an idiot or a sociopath (this last one is inherently tricky to pull off; don’t play with Libertarians at home kids, at least not without the supervision of an ethical adult [it should be clear this would exclude Libertarians]).

A really great example of a show utilizing its dramatic potential to the utmost is Power on Starz. The only time every drop of a character’s drama isn’t wrung out is because occasionally a character dies before their time; but barring that, Power will find a way to set characters against one another just to see how any particular set of bumper cars will bounce off one another.

There is, however, a corollary to this idea. You should use as much of your story’s inherent dramatic potential as possible, but you have to earn it. If your homophobe is going to come out, you have to focus on his back-story, the reasons he wasn’t comfortable with the idea he was gay, the reasons he would have hid and the reasons he starts to recognize that part of himself, and gains the courage to live that truth. If your homophobe is going to realize the error of his ways, you have to give some details as to how he got there, why he stayed there, and what changes and how it changes him, to sell the idea that the character would go through that transformation.

This is, obnoxiously, a place where Power sucks. Characters who spend seasons extolling the virtues of their found family, who would die for one another, whose family are closer than any blood they have in the world, will turn on a dime and decide to try and murder one another for almost no reason at all. The show is straight up bad at the ways in which it will just reverse coarse on a character or an arc to maximize dramatic potential, which is just tragic, because it has the effect of blunting that potential. A betrayal burns so much hotter when it’s earned, when you feel both the justifiable love and hatred the character has, when you can see it in an actor’s eyes that he feels like he’s got no choice but to pull the trigger, all while knowing he’s all but pulling it on himself, too- that even if he’s not catching this bullet literally, it’s going to kill him, anyway.

It’s still a thoroughly watchable show, and dramatic as all hell, especially if you ignore that the characters are all a little… flighty. I suspect early on in the show they decided they wanted the idea of the hero vs hero comic book fights, or the two characters have a misunderstanding arc from more traditional TV (in particular sitcoms), but wouldn’t stomach the silly contrivances that usually set the characters on their collision course. Most of the conflicts in the show involve characters who are drug dealers who have personally murdered dozens of people and are usually pawns in overlapping power plays perpetrated by layers of federal investigators and underworld figures from a variety of competing crime families. So when something bad happens, inevitably, the main characters blame each other by default, rather than assume, you know, that any number of outside rivals might be responsible, instead; the show essentially becomes Occam’s Rube Goldberg machine. Even that could have worked, if the show were built around a conceit of a central loss of trust.

The closest the show got to that transformational moment was a central romance that was also infidelity; but the show wanted to have its cake and eat it, too, and presented Jaime and Angela as Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed, perhaps, but also predestined to their love and fate. That’s a start to families bursting apart, brothers drawing guns on one another, but it can’t work as the whole incitement, especially when they spend so much of the show’s early seasons showing us the inside of the relationship and making the audience want it to succeed. Had they shown that conflict from his wife’s perspective, or his adoptive brother and partner in crime, who felt he wasn’t respecting the family he would never technically be a part of… you could have built that, but you needed to do the work. It likely would have required that adoptive brother and the wife clinging to one another, both hurt and betrayed, finding solace in each other’s arms, and then having to hide, and lie, and then a cascade of increasing deceit, betrayal, and heartache to make you not only feel that the characters’ love would turn to hate, but that you feel for them so hard that you want them to have revenge against other characters you love, that they deserve to have it, since they can’t be made whole.

Had it been some big, bungled moment that shattered the ability of our leads to see any foe but the one who is already in the house, or even a series of small but building betrayals, where the show takes the characters could have felt organic, and their emotions raw, and powerful; that sounds excitingly and appropriately Shakespearean, but what we got instead was a show that recognized dramatic potential on instinct, but more often than not wasn’t willing to show the work of how you got the character from their starting point to where the story needed them to be. It results in the same silly contrivances, only these ones aren’t borne on the shoulders of the story, but weigh down the characters with nonsensical behavior. You stop believing in their reality, and while it can still be an arresting distraction, the artifice prevents it from changing the way you feel about your own world.

Stories are literally contrived. The best artisans skillfully obscure that contrivance, while still trying to maximize the power and stakes of their story, so that whatever is at the heart of the story they’re trying to say can shine through. I can’t promise you that if you try to be more aware of both dramatic potential and executing it in organic ways that your stories will be good. But they will feel more real to your audience, and your characters will feel more real to you, too.

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