Almost all writers are familiar with the use of dramatic tension. A character wants something and is having trouble getting it. This is the primary means of enthralling an audience in a feature screenplay. We are urged ceaselessly to develop characters with a strong drive. Characters that have a lot at stake, and a formidable opponent to make it all interesting.
Such a structure, executed successfully, keeps the audience at the edge of its seat. It also serves to inform the audience when the movie will be over, namely, when we learn if the main character will get what he or she wants. This is a crucial element of cinematic storytelling; we have all had the unfortunate experience of believing a film is over, only to have it drag on and on.
Enter The Deadline
There are a fair number of successful films, though, that do not use the engine of dramatic tension. Yet, they are successful with audiences. Often described as “character-driven” movies, in these, a loosely presented exploration of characters and relationships takes the place of relentlessly forward-moving dramatic tension.
A slew of recent films fit this category – Julie and Julia, (500) Days of Summer, Juno, Waitress.
Absent the mechanics of drama, what is it about these films that serves to keep the audience interested? And what signals when the film will be over?
The answer is telegraphing. Specifically: a deadline.
Both Waitress and Juno are framed by pregnancy. A character discovers she is pregnant in the opening few scenes… This signals to the audience that the movie will, most likely, take place over the course of nine months, culminating in a birth.
The expectation of the birth serves as the deadline, toward which the story moves. Aware of this framing, the audience is now free to enjoy the ups and downs. They roll with the tensions of the relationships, without wondering where the movie is “going.” And it will know when the movie will be over: soon after the main character gives birth.
The main plot in Julie and Julia has a specific deadline: Julie has 365 days to cook every recipe in Julie Childs’ cookbook. The progress we are making in the movie can be readily marked by Julie’s frequent references to how many days she has left.
Tension builds as the final day gets closer. Although one may regard Julie’s desire to cook these dishes as the “want” that traditionally powers dramatic tension, the film itself does not exploit this aspect of the premise: there are no major obstacles, and many of the scenes focus on her relationship with her husband.
The audience is now free to enjoy the ups and downs and tensions of the relationships without being distracted by the question of where the movie is “going.”
In the same film, the Julia Childs subplot employs the deadline of her eventual success, which is telegraphed early in the film by the fact that Julie is using her cookbook. Julia Childs is at best a laid-back protagonist, searching for something interesting to do. There is no life or death situation here. There is, though, the expectation that she will eventually find success, and that, once the success is realized, the film will be over.
500 Days of Summer has its deadline built right into the title. Although the scenes in the film are largely out of sequence, the voiceover narration and the constant reminders about which day in the relationship the current scene is keeps the audience oriented. And as we approach Day 500, we expect the film will soon be over.
Once the success is realized, the film will be over.
Another recent film, The Hurt Locker, has action elements but is, like the others described herein, episodic in nature. There is much use of high stakes/big desire dramatic tension within the sequences of the film, but not in the film as a whole. Instead, the film plays out as a countdown to the end of the tour of duty of the main characters.
To a lesser extent, The Hangover exploits a deadline: the boys have one day to find the groom before the wedding. Although this film has a traditional dramatic action—the main characters must find the groom and get him home—the fact that they have just one day to accomplish their mission intensifies the drama.
Effective use of the deadline can give a screenwriter remarkable flexibility in approaching material that does not lend itself easily to a traditional dramatic structure.
(c)2009 Paul Gulino