“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” So said British playwright William Archer back in the Edwardian era. A definition that gets to the core of fiction so succinctly, Disney/Pixar’s Andrew Stanton featured it in his TED Talk on story telling.
Drama necessarily involves conflict. Otherwise nothing happens. No drama means… no Drama. Imagine a soap opera where everyone gets along, nobody fights, argues or falls in love. Dull.
You can have drama without uncertainty. Solid genre stories that precisely follow a formula run this risk. How many Westerns, Romances and Thrillers have you seen that are so formulaic they are predictable, unsurprising, flat and dull? The familiar beats give way to tropes, give way to cliches. It doesn’t matter how big the name of the author or the size of the budget. Let’s not name names.
As an audience we want to know what genre we’re in. We anticipate formula, story beats and the structure of plot-points and the try-fail cycle.
‘What happens next?’ is the staple of the page-turner. Readers are happy to work for their supper, trying to beat the detective to the truth of the murder mystery. We anticipate one character going over the edge in the cliff-top fight. The bad guy goes over, there’s a satisfying cathartic release; the good guy goes over, we hold our breath for the dramatic rescue, landing on a ledge, clinging onto a branch, diving into the water.
Uncertainty is key to a gripping drama. Can the good guys make it to the end? Will we lose some along the way? Will they win. If so, how? Do they survive?
Will Lizzie marry Darcy? Will Oedipus realize his mistake in time to escape the punishment of the gods? Does the bus-load of gold topple over the cliff? Who is Rosebud? Does the protagonist make the ultimate sacrifice or is there a bait-and-switch ending? Is there a twist ending? Gasp – we’re back on Earth all along. Or the detective is the murderer!
Solid genre stories are the most blatant for plot formulas, so where’s the uncertainty? It’s not just the win, the gun-fight or the happy-ever-after, but how we get there.
It’s in the drama of the try-fail cycle and the ‘all-is-lost’ moment. Even if we know the story beats, anticipating the dramatic turnaround, there has to be uncertainty; will it happen, and how?
Pride and Prejudice is a romance. We expect the protagonists to get together, but how do they overcome his pride and her prejudice? The Wickham elopement is the moment of ruin at which Lydia’s marriage is pulled out of the hat.
There’s the drama, the uncertainty, and the unexpected rescue. It’s all been foreshadowed, but it still comes as a surprise; the revelation and turnaround for both Darcy and Lizzie.
Against the Odds
If you’ve never read it, Austen so stacks the odds against the Bennett family, they defy our anticipation. Could this be the genre-defying story that breaks, not makes, the romance genre? Could this be the life’s-love-lost story and not the happy-ever-after?
Uncertainty doesn’t mean a surprise ending, a twist or a genre-hop. Some pesky kids don’t have to pull off the janitors’ mask for the final reveal. Uncertainty involves just enough doubt to keep us on the edge of our seats.
It’s a sledge.