How to Establish Dramatic Context

During my classes on story, I often talk about the multiple layers that go into the crafting of a tale. The inciting incident, turning points, pinches, and midpoint, are structural units that help the writer to formulate, position and strengthen narrative incidents by locating them within a specific dramatic context — the beginning, middle, and end; each structural unit has a specific purpose and function within each dramatic context. Syd Field reminds us that another way to think of the dramatic context is in terms of its purpose — the purpose of the beginning is to set up the story, the middle, to create confrontation and complication, and the end, to bring about a resolution. But here’s the useful part: each context can be formulated in terms of a specific question to guide the writer in creating scenes that, in effect, answer this question.

Legion

In the movie Legion, Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) disobeys God’s command to wreak vengeance on Man for his perpetual disobedience. Instead, Michael cuts off his wings, making himself human, and appoints himself protector of a waitress at a remote diner, Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), and her unborn child, who, he declares, is mankind’s last hope. In choosing this path, Michael pits himself against the hordes of horrific angels led by Archangel Gabriel (David Durrand) who have come down to earth to kill the unborn child. This causes Michael to sacrifice himself for his cause, a sacrifice, which, ironically, leads God to restore Michael to his former self, intact with wings and angelic powers. Michael then defeats Gabriel and saves the child, and by implication, mankind.

Questions Asked and Answered

The setup (beginning) asks and answers the question: what is the purpose of the strange happenings occurring around the remote diner? The confrontation (middle), asks and answers the question: will Archangel Michael and his motley crew prevail against the hordes? The resolution (end) asks and answers the question: having beaten the horrific hordes, will Michael overcome the final obstacle by defeating Gabriel, thus saving the child and the world? Writing scenes that collectively pose and answer these questions provides a road map to your story which helps to keep it on track.

In Summary

The dramatic context defines the kind of incidents that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Each context can be formulated in terms of a question. Structuring our scenes in answer to this question provides us with a blueprint for crafting each stage of our story.

If you have enjoyed this post or have any questions concerning it, leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

8 thoughts on “How to Establish Dramatic Context

  1. Shea Moir

    That is a nice little way to keep a hook on the audience. Thanks, Stavros for clearing that up so succinctly. I, myself have a lot of learning to do in terms of writing and as , Russ stated, Its nice to have a written reference of what you taught us in class. It’s almost comforting. Hope your enjoying yourself. Take care.

    Reply
  2. Mark Landen

    I hadn’t directly thought about crafting a series of scenes to answer the question I’m posing to the audience; instead, I have intrinsically done so. But knowing the principles behind why we do things is empowering and serves to strengthen our storytelling.

    Excellent post! I have more things to think about now. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Glad you found the post useful, Mark. It is true that we often use these principles instinctively, anyway.

      Reply
  3. Russ Welsh

    Amazing, as always. Nothing you haven’t taught in class but definitely asserts a kind of back-up. If that makes sense. I knew all of this but now that it’s in writing it allows better access for a reference point. I’m using it to finish my screenplay.

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  4. Laura Zera (@laurazera)

    I have also been incorporating the concept of the set piece in my story to do exactly what you’ve said above, but in several iterations of ‘rising risk.’ That gives me the opportunity to have several confrontations that build to the final (most dramatic) confrontation.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. Yes indeed. Ultimately, every incident rides on a confrontation of some sort, even during the set-up. And yes, each incident is fueled by mounting stakes, culminating in the obligatory scene which pits the protagonist against the antagonist. Another way to characterize the middle part of the story would be as one which creates mounting complications resulting in rising confrontation.

      Reply

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