One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently in scripts / stories is the question of the DRAMATIC PROPOSITION of a show. Prompted by the work I’m doing with my three excellent Channel 4 screenwriting course writers and a particular pilot episode I watched recently.
The show in question is ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (Disney+) in which the ‘dramatic proposition’ is articulated via character voiceover within the pilot episode of the show itself.
Steve Martin: ‘A great true crime mystery unpeels itself like an onion.’
Martin Short: ‘First the crime, then the characters and then their secrets.’
Selena Gomez: ‘The secrets are the fun part – who’s telling the truth, who is lying, what are they hiding.’
Steve Martin: ‘Because let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier to figure out someone else’s secret than it is to deal with your own.’
This dramatic proposition is not quite the same as the series narrative premise, which I’d describe as – a series about three loners who all live alone in the same Manhattan apartment block and come together when they discover their shared obsession with a true crime podcast – to investigate the murder that has taken place in their apartment building.
This voiceover sequence encapsulates precisely what the series is about. You might think that such an ‘on the nose’ articulation by the characters of the dramatic proposition of the series would come across as clunkily expositional. But somehow the opposite is true. This feels like the beautifully satisfying last narrative jigsaw piece of the episode one story. Once this piece is finally dropped into place, we have the whole jigsaw complete. The episode is coming to that perfect ending in which we clearly understand the idea behind the story, we are intrigued by the three main characters and their secrets, the contrast between who they appear to be and why they really are. And at the end of this voiceover we receive the final visual clue in the murder story that runs through the series, that will hook us into episode 2. Series storytelling of real skill and elegance.
A series that understands itself so well instantly enables you to relax into the pleasures of the story – you are in capable, assured hands.
This clear grasp of the narrative proposition of the show – and the human contradiction or dilemma at its heart – is at the heart of effective dramatic writing.
I remember some years ago on the Channel 4 screenwriting course, then head of drama development, Surian Fletcher Jones, talking about how important it was for writers on Channel 4 drama shows to clearly establish the dramatic proposition of a show within the first 12 minutes before the first ad break. This can be incredibly challenging – but I think it’s a really helpful challenge for writers to try to achieve.
(Incidentally Surian now works at Working Title TV, and is executive producer of the wonderful WE ARE LADY PARTS which this week won screenwriter and 4screenwriting alumna NIDA MANZOOR the BAFTA TV Comedy best writer award; and the script executive on the show was Sami El-Hadi, a former 4screenwriting shadow script editor).
Thinking about the clarity of the dramatic proposition in OMITB made me think about some other TV shows / films / scripts that I have watched / read and enjoyed recently – and why I responded to them.
And I think one of the things they all have in common – and the thing you all need to be striving for – is a crystal clear dramatic proposition at their heart. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Often the best ideas are quite simple. But if your idea isn’t inherently dramatic, it will be very hard to make it fly, however well-written it is. There needs to be a fundamental core of drama, conflict and a dilemma to your story idea.
What is the jeopardy in your story? What is at stake for the central character? These are two key questions that you need to be able to answer easily. You need to make sure real substantive drama is at the heart of your idea and in the logline.
A feature film in which two middle-aged couples are brought together to meet in an anonymous church hall. Couple A’s son has murdered Couple B’s son; the 4 talk – trying to find some resolution and meaning from the violent tragedy that has overtaken their lives.
The Tinder Swindler
Documentary feature in which two young women join forces to try to bring to justice the man they met on Tinder who seduced them, won their confidence, then defrauded them out of tens of thousands of dollars.
The Incredible Kitty Fisher
A brilliant script I read recently. Inspired by the true story of C18th courtesan Kitty Fisher. Kitty and her friend Lucy are disenfranchised and living in poverty in London. They realise that their only currency is sex – and so Lucy helps Kitty go on a journey of self-empowerment, taking on the toxic male establishment at their own game. (A great example of a period story that has real contemporary resonance).
One of the many outstanding scripts from 4screenwriting 2021. Set in and around Newcastle. 20 year old Flick has died in a car accident. After the funeral, her two lifelong female friends spend one last indulgent night on the town with Flick’s urn of ashes, mourning and celebrating her life. Cut to the next morning, they wake in a house they don’t recognise – having lost the ashes (due to be scattered by her family later in the day) and wanted for murder themselves after a confrontation at the funeral with Flick’s obnoxious ex-boyfriend. (This all happens in ep 1).
From BBC i-player – ‘Under pressure, fraying at the edges. In relentless night-time Liverpool, copper Chris is paired with a rookie. Will they save or destroy each other?’ The lead character has an impossible dilemma to juggle – in order to help the victims, he needs to cover up, even facilitate, a larger crime – and thereby risk his job, his marriage, even his freedom. An inherently dramatic set-up.
In the first episode (and throughout the series) the story cuts between –
1996: a US high school girls football team’s private plane crashes on the way to a game. Stranded in a mountainous forest for weeks, the girls have to do unspeakable things to survive.
…and 2021: Now middle-aged, the women live separate lives, trying to hide the dark secrets of those lost two weeks. But events in the present force them back together to confront the horrors of the past.
Not an entirely original idea but it’s hugely dramatic and instantly compelling.
Life & Death In The Warehouse
Written by the excellent Helen Black, this feels like a story that needed to be told. It’s both powerfully dramatic but also driven by an impassioned political and social agenda. A very specific story that asks huge questions about capitalism, profiteering and the human costs involved.
After a one night stand in a hotel in Iceland, Josh and Fola are horrified to discover they live opposite each other in a South London street – and complications ensure – in a series of 18 x 10 minute episodes. Again, the series is predicated on a simple but very smart idea, forcing 4 characters together in a seemingly insoluble situation.
All of the above are, for me, shining examples of shows that have a crystal-clear and compelling dramatic proposition. All seem to me to be relatively easy to pitch because the writers are absolutely clear about the stories that they want to tell – and all of these stories have knotty, intense, human dilemmas as part of their DNA.
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 13th,
All the best
April 29th 2022