Thursday, December 26, 2013

Low drama, low conflict

For a while now, I have been thinking about the need for 'drama' in stories, especially scripts. It is taken for granted that for a film or play to work, there needs to be a steady escalation of drama. That conflict must be established early on, that we (or rather, the audience) must be worried about the fate of the principal characters, and that the level of 'difficulty' in these characters' lives must rise, reaching a 'climax', after which there is a resolution.

Of course, it is taken for granted that we are talking about a particular moment in time, or rather, a phase in someone's life. It could be 24 hours or one night (eg - Gateway of India, starring Madhubala), or a few months (most films we watch), or over twenty years (eg - Amar Akbar Anthony). Very occasionally, the story may span two or three generations (eg - Jasmine Women, or Gangs of Wasseypur) wherein it is understood that the protagonists change, and our investment in their future might shift at any point.

Which means, we pick out a slice of someone's life, a slice that is full of difficulty, and further dramatize it for the purposes of... well, for the purpose of drama. Because what else do people want from storytelling, right?

That is what we're taught by books, by theatre and film practitioners, and in most of the entertainment options we've had. This is not wisdom I wanted to challenge. Until recently.

I read a short story a few months ago (I'm forgetting the story title and the author's name) and was left a bit unsettled at the way it ended. It was the story of a man and a woman who are in bed and perhaps trying to figure out what they will do with each other. They are not a married couple. I'd assumed that some form of marriage or a commitment angle would work itself into the story. There must be conflict, because one of them will not agree to the other's terms. There would be tears or resentment, and eventually, they'd make up or part ways forever.

But the story never left the bedroom. There was a vague discussion, skirting the edges of disagreement. No major drama though. There was an assumption of desire, and a call for truth. And then what? Well, nothing. That was it. The writer allowed the characters to stay untroubled. There was no violence, not even of the emotional kind.

And it left me stumped. Because I'm conditioned to expect 'high' drama. In stories, there's a lot at stake: life, limb, sanity, social security. My reading and watching life has prepared me for troubled situations escalating to fever pitch, usually ending in violence. If not blood and gore, then at least a kidnapping-rescue situation, a gentle-slide-into-fatal-disease situation. At the very minimum, an I'm-going-to-die-without-you situation.

I still remember the face of my little niece as I was trying to tell her a story. I'd created some animal characters and set up a chase. My niece was about four years old then, and she was not liking the dangerous direction my narrative had taken. She interrupted me twice, and each time, added bits to the story to 'save' the protagonist. She wanted things to be 'alright'. The problem was, I did not know how to tell a story in which things were just alright for everybody.

I realize now that this is not because I am so aware of the wrongness, the tragedy and danger in people's lives. 'Real' life is fairly dull. People are bored, but not bloodthirsty. Many of them accomplish things without coming to grief. Are those stories not worth telling?

I clearly remember being bewildered by this film Happy Go Lucky . It is the story of a school teacher who is very optimistic. From the first scene on, I was expecting that character to come to grief. Why else would you make someone so cheerful, right? I was so sure that her cheerful, trusting outlook would be destroyed (or at least, severely tested) that I got really tense, biting my knuckles in the dark theatre. But although she is walking about at night, alone, she comes to no harm. 

Then she meets a nice-looking man. I thought "Ah! Now comes the conflict!" But no. The man likes her back. They get together. All is well. So then?

So then, I felt a bit annoyed. I thought, 'What kind of film is this? Nothing really happens.' But then I calmed down and thought some more. It is not that 'nothing happens'. There's a lot happening in every scene.; I wasn't bored at all. I was actually very involved with this character and her life. The thing was, nothing bad happened. Sure, some people were mean to her. But I felt pity for them, not for the protagonist. She was fine, handling everyone's stress quite well.

The best part is, three years later, I remember every other scene. That actress, her smile, her eyes, her ability to trust, to not be overwhelmed by sadness, to wait for happiness. So now, I must admit that it's a good film. A memorable film! 

What was the script doing? It was not escalating the drama quotient. It was negating the need for a drama quotient. Not every story needs drama, and not all dramas need to end in either tragedy or comedy.

These days, I am more and more convinced that 'high drama' does not lie at the heart of entertainment. Most people are actually looking for happy sights and sounds. We fear death and destruction - ours as well as other people's. That's why so many people prefer watching 'hulka-phulka' cinema. When we watch 'action' films, we prefer violence that has no resemblance to real physical violence. It is not messy. We do not feel the pain or guilt that is inevitable in real life. When we watch thrillers, we want to walk away with something at the end - a sense of justice, at least, and restored normalcy. When we watch romance, we want to melt and have faith that people actually want - and get! - each other.

In a story, things must happen. In life too, things happen. But must those things be violent? Does every sadness or disappointment have to lead to depression? Why are we so very reluctant to tell stories of normalcy, of dull aches and quick recoveries? Why are we not more vigilant, more resistant, more open to what a good story is, and how it must be told?


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Well its an obvious question.. why things happen in life and so why people behave inconsistently and why not so obvious in their questions too..its matter of time every consequence and situation will settle like a turnaround from riddle in water into a quite gesture its self.

This site gives a look into scope of concepts for which this world is meddling on.

Unknown said...

Very good post, Ms. Zaidi. I think many of the stories in your book "love stories #1 to 14" were low drama but were still engaging. Though when a low drama story gets too close to reality, it can unnerve you :) High drama stories in not being realistic are less unsettling most of the times.

rj said...

I felt word by word as u mentioned about happy go lucky while watching an italian muvie named life is beautiful. Totally engaged me. I kept thinking now comes the tragic moment. Here breaks hell. But indeed the movie was so good. The way actor takes on ebbs and flows of his life. In the end I was puzzled as to why such an easy going muvie with a consistent temperament. I took sometime to think back and accept that such stories too can exist.

Mahi said...

Your questions do raise an important point. Actually low drama and low conflict stories are usually thought to be fit for kids and not adults.

I feel this is mostly because we and also people around us categorize and choose things on the basis of what is hot and what is not. Just the way an item number is added to sell the film...same way conflict is heightened / thrills are added. It's like - writers tell what sells.

Serious Sometimes said...

Loved it! But haven't modern writers (eg D F Wallace, Eco, etc etc etc) explored this paradigm quite a bit? I even see it in comedy (eg Louis CK and his tv series), staying around averages without much action, but a dull sense of knowing, raising questions rather than events. Personally, i enjoy this kind of writing far more than dramatic as drama just seems inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this piece. I am also halfway through your book " Love stories" and I really love the way you write, Ms. Zaidi. I also stalk your blog (Sorry, but I really do not have a comment to make because I am so carried away with the ideas and thoughts so beautifully expressed) and almost every day, I send my husband a link to one of your opinions presented on this blog. Thank you for the amazing mental workouts I get just by reading your blog.

Thank you one again, for proving the extraordinary power of words (in their right places, of course!).

Annie Zaidi said...


Tweets by @anniezaidi