Contemporary movies and TV shows often have trouble keeping up with the changing tide of technology and the way it is used by characters in their stories. The cellphone, for example, voids traditional dramatic devices such as the messenger. Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “Just use your cellphone, stupid” during some TV show attempting realism? Young folks text one another at all hours of the day and night, who needs to wait for a letter, a telegram, or messenger? Think of those science-fiction movies where the “scientist” character explains the “science” behind the fiction. Siri just doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as a fully realized human character who takes time to research the answer and provide the solution at the last possible moment.
A ‘text’ simply isn’t as dramatic as seeing a bloodied messenger from the battlefield. The blood on the messenger’s costume and face tells its own story, the audience is able to imagine what he has been through. A soldier simply answering a phone doesn’t convey very much of that kind of context. Dramatic time has to be manipulated to the storyteller’s advantage. The time it takes to get the message through the battlefield causes tension, which builds drama. Will he get there in time? Instant knowledge may help win the battle, but it changes dramatic time as a tool for storytelling.
The shape and drama of a story is determined by strategically revealing or not revealing information from one character to another or to the audience. Dramatic tensions build as expository information is revealed or kept secret. The play could start with a gun shot, allowing the events of the story to be revealed strategically over the time it takes to present the play; the same story could also play out first and then end with the gunshot. Either choice can be theatrical, based upon the strategic use of dramatic tension.
The audience needs to be teased, but they want it to be done artfully with skill and imagination. The playwright’s job follows the same strategy as a highly skilled prostitute. (I’ve tried using this metaphor with college students, but sex for them is instantaneous so they don’t grasp the concept.) Good sex takes place over time, it starts with simple, gentle stimulations with small peaks of arousal followed by periods of rest. This is repeated with increasingly more variety and intensity of stimulation, persisting over a prolonged period of time. The peaks of excitement and valleys of rest – tension and release as Martha Graham described it in dance – provide a cumulative biological need to climax, to purge, to have a catharsis.
Playwrights follow the same procedure engaging the mind and heart instead of the crotch. They stimulate your intellect and emotion with a question, What’s going to happen? Who are these people, what is their circumstance, who should I care about? The answers come in the form of exposition which provides details that answer basic questions. Those answers lead to more sophisticated, interesting, intellectual questions. Events build to peaks of tension followed by a release; each set of peaks and valleys takes us deeper into a greater involvement with the characters and the world of the story until the moment of release – the climax, near the end.
So the future of storytelling is going to evolve with a new generation. The landmark story of the Millennials is Harry Potter; yet Wizards don’t use cell phones! (Think of the problems that would have been quickly solved in that story if they did!) It is one thing to speak to children of a slowed-down, fantasy, wizard world, distant from their own, but present day realism is a different matter. How would one authentically, yet artfully, portray the contemporary world we live in? Kids with heads tilted down, focused on phones and ears plugged with music are boring. All the drama is in the device! Three dots blinking in sequence, how will she respond? Snore!