1. Write about some people.
This guy would be a fine character. He's even all thoughtful looking. Image By wmacphail @ Flickr
Just any people. It doesn’t really matter. All the drama will be taken care of in steps 2 and 3, so don’t try to get all artsy. Just write about your mailman, or hairdresser or a guy you saw on a bus once.
2. Sprinkle a little sci-fi on it.
Just a little. Like everyone’s normal, but then there’s a magical black puff of smoke that eats people (wouldn’t that be weird?), or maybe sometimes when one of the characters eats salt he can see in the other people’s souls. Or maybe someone has farts that cure cancer. But he only finds out about it by accident when he eats some bad tacos and visits his grandma in the cancer ward and then everyone’s cured. Just a little sci-fi’ll do ya.
3. Remove all critical and/or relevant dialog. Replace with “acting” faces.
Actors should make faces like this, but not say any words. No words! Image by diegodiazphotography @ Flickr
This is the most important step. Any time two of your characters are having a discussion and something absolutely imperative comes up, make sure that the character with the critical information, instead of sharing it, makes a sad face, or looks scared or opens her mouth for a second, but then closes it. When none of the critical information necessary for success/healthy relationships/normal societal functioning is communicated, everything goes to hell. And that, my friends, is drama.
For added instruction, I will now demonstrate these techniques.
A Story – Boring/Normal Version
Sondra, who is the head of a corporation, has been dating Mark, the head of a different corporation. Mark gets a phone call, learning that his young sister, Suzy, has a mysterious illness and is expected to die within the week. Mark, being so upset, goes to see Sondra. They embrace, and talk about how this news makes them feel. They decide that family is what is most important, and they both decide to take as much vacation time as they can to be with Suzy. On the way over to the hospital they listen to NPR, but then turn it off so they can think in silence. A week later, Suzy dies and they attend her funeral, where they reflect on their lives and decide to volunteer at the hospital once a week. The end.
The Only Story That Will Ever Matter – Hollywood Version
Sondra, who is the head of a corporation, has been dating Mark, the head of a different corporation. Mark gets a phone call, learning that his young sister, Suzy, has a mysterious illness and is expected to die within the week. Mark thanks the doctor, hangs up, looks at a picture of himself, Sondra, and Suzy, then quickly turns over the picture, and gets back to work—ignoring the fact that he just received devastating news.
Meanwhile, Sondra is giving a presentation to the board of directors. Mid-sentence, she collapses onto the table, spilling her water, then stares off creepily while whispering, “Suzy.” A moment later, she straightens up and continues with the presentation. Even though EVERYONE in the room is thinking, “Holy sh*tballs, what was that?!” no one says a word.
Sondra and Mark are having dinner. Suzy is weighing heavily on both of their minds. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Suzy,” says Sondra nonchalantly over her tortellini. “Really? Why is that?” asks Mark. [Note: this is where the characters would normally share the interesting/important information from their lives. DON'T LET THEM DO IT!] Sondra opens her mouth for a second, then closes it, then says, “Just because. We should have her over for dinner.” Mark nods, makes a very serious face, then opens his mouth a little, then closes his mouth, then nods again.
Later Sondra finds herself compelled to wander the halls of the local hospital. She finds Mark hovered over Suzy’s lifeless body, crying. “Mark?! Wha…?” Sondra sputters, confused. “I…” starts Mark, but Sondra holds a finger up to his mouth. Mark turns for the door, having made serious faces. Sondra puts her hand on Suzy who, against all odds and rules of reality, twitches oh so slightly and says, “Mark?” Sondra opens her mouth to call to Mark, but then doesn’t. The end.
See how that works? You could probably write something normal that actually happened to you, then just go back with a black marker and take out anything that seems even slightly important. And add magic. Reality – common sense + mystery = drama. The point is to work the audience into a fervor with their desire to see the characters communicate like rational humans.
Feel free to add your secret spices to the pot, folks. It’s for the arts.