What is "dramatic"?

Over in the Perception thread, I made the claim that "Things are dramatic (exciting) because they're uncertain. I think uncertainty is part of the definition."

@Nathan_H: You replied, across a couple posts:
Nathan_H said:


Things are hopefully suspenseful, but not dramatic. I mean, it all depends on the messenger, and the message. If no one cares, it's just nothing.

...

I think it's sometimes lazy to use the unknown as the source of drama, instead of the way there. It's the means to something, not that something. The unknown is the carrier, not the message.

...

And I don't buy that things are dramatic because they're unknown. Things are maybe interesting because we learn only a bit at a time, or it makes us lean in to something, attracts us to something, but the unknown loses it's appeal.

Things are dramatic because they're in opposition, they just start off unknown.

I'd like to ask then, What is dramatic?

I feel like uncertainty is always an ingredient of drama ("sudden and striking circumstance"). It might be uncertainty supplied by dice or by another player (or GM).

And because you (Nathan) said you don't know what uncertainty is, I mean a state where there's obviously some important knowledge missing.

I think you're correct that the uncertainty in and of itself isn't the drama, but the way there. I don't think that contradicts what I said, that things are dramatic because they're uncertain. The way I said it is a bit muddled, but I clarified that uncertainty is part of the definition, and by that, I meant that it's a necessary part or step, but not the only necessary part or step.

Comments

  • Oh, a terminological wrangle. Cool.

    When I use the word, I usually mean a specific type of subtextual effect used in the literary arts. Artistic expression differs from everyday communication mainly in that humans have developed a variety of expressive techniques compatible with human psychology that are only used in a specific type of "aesthetic" context. "Dramatic" is one of these; other examples are "simile", "grandeur", and so on - aesthetics as a branch of philosophy likes to speculate about these.

    So anyway, the way I understand the word "drama" in reference to an aesthetic substance is that aside from the literal meaning of "theater" it signifies a type of storytelling that invites the audience to empathize with the characters under consideration. "Drama" is present in a work of art when there's a story, with characters, and the internal reality of those characters is expressed for the audience, who are invited to partake of that reality. You might wish to contrast this definition of "drama" with things like "thriller" or "epic" or other literary concerns. Drama requires characters because you can't empathize with something that is not there, and it requires plot because drama is not mind upload: the empathy activates by having the audience understand the circumstances of the character, which combined with behavioral cues helps them grasp what the character is feeling.

    I am obviously aware that people use words any which way, and "drama" is a popular word. Sort of like "story", there's all sorts of ways in which it's used by folks.

    Regarding your claim that uncertainty is always a part of drama, I disagree. It is true that drama often involves surprise, but I think that's more of a consequence of works necessarily having structure than drama being driven by surprise. That is, when we consider a dramatic work we can generally pinpoint a moment of change in the story, and that change then triggers emotional states, which feel dramatic, but the fact that the change is generally surprising isn't inherent to the drama, I think, but rather it's just a necessary consequence of stories having starting and stopping points. How could you contextualize the dramatic event sufficiently for the audience to understand it, if you refused to "surprise" them by changing things?

    In case that wasn't clear, consider the thought-exercise of a story with no surprise whatsoever. Here's one:

    A woman is grieving on the stage. Because the title of the piece is "Mary's lament" and because of her dress and so forth, and the Getsemane in the background, you already know that this theater piece is about a certain famous story that you are well aware of.

    That's the whole of the piece. Is it dramatic? I would argue that it is, because the actress is at least attempting to trigger an empathetic reaction in the audience. The reason why I managed to draft a dramatic story without any surprises is that I refused to include an on-screen plot - or any change in fact, it's all just a still picture - and because my choice of subject matter ensures that you already know what's happened, what the context of her grief is.

    Yeah, that's sort of a stupid example, but thought-exercises often are. Consider it, though: if surprise is part of drama, why is it that we are able to recognize that single-scene play about a grieving woman as "drama"? Assuming we can, of course - maybe you mean something entirely different by drama than I do.

    --

    For the light-hearted out there, I'll also note that I have a second meaning of "dramatic" that I often use: I say that fictions are "dramatically structured" if they involve a relatively high level of structural stylization typical of storytelling. In this sense of the word I would say that for something to be "dramatic" it needs to have a start, an end, protagonists, antagonists, catharsis and other elements that Aristotle and others have recognized as essential parts of a well-crafted drama.

    This distinction between stories that are more "dramatic" and stories that are less so is important in literary analysis, particularly historical analysis of realist literature, as anti-dramatization is an important artistic tool in itself, just as much as dramatization is. Everybody is probably aware of how "reality tv" has been introducing new generations to the idea that fiction can get interesting effects and be harder-hitting by concealing its dramatic crafting.

    For roleplayers this sort of thing should be very familiar, too. Story games feature a rich continuum of structure, and more and less dramatic solutions differ drastically in how they feel and what they do. Does your game split action into "scenes"? Do you have an unitary plot that ends? Is it a sandbox? Ars Magica is very anti-dramatic, for example, regardless of being a story game.

    In case you're not despairing of defining "dramatic" at this point, let me say that I am; I clearly have very refined views on this word, and I use it a lot, and I think about it a lot, and I still have two completely different definitions for it. So yeah.
  • I defined "dramatic" as "exciting" in my quote.
  • I doubt this is going to be particularly helpful, but I think that for me, "dramatic" describes a state where something emotionally difficult is going to happen. Drama is a sort of tension that comes from knowing that there's going to be an inevitable reckoning with some sort of problem from which somebody you care about/identify with (or in the case of real-life drama, even somebody you are) is not going to get away without dealing with it.

    I guess it's true that uncertainty can be a part of that sort of drama. You may be presented with a choice between two different bad outcomes, and there's uncertainty about which will be chosen, for example. Or you may try to postpone the reckoning, and maybe even believe that it's possible to avoid it altogether, which is another kind of uncertainty (though I think it might only count as drama-by-my-definition when you actually can't avoid it).

    Keywords like tension, excitement, uncertainty, pathos, etc...might all potentially be part of the dramatic experience, but I don't think they don't necessarily indicate its existence.
  • edited February 19
    I think some sort of uncertainty is necessary for excitement, but I think some sort of uncertainty is present in every moment of play.

    I think having high stakes uncertainty is definitely one way to generate excitement. Even "roll anything but a 1!" can put everyone on the edges of their seats if "1" means character death.

    I also think player dilemmas tend to generate excitement via the uncertainty of "which imperfect option will they pick?" Again, the stakes need to be sufficient -- whatever is sacrificed needs to be significant.

    Probably the thing that gets me most excited is opportunity. If a path opens up for me to do something really cool with my character, I'm fired up and eager to pounce. This opportunity can arrive in the form of a magic item, a levelled-up spell list, a neat adventure hook, a new ally, or a hole that's just big enough to peer through to observe the secret conclave. As for uncertainty, that's not the part I'd focus on, but on reflection I do think the question of, "Will I actually get to do all the cool things I'm imagining doing?" is part of the excitement. I'm not sure whether any greater degree of uncertainty is required than, "Well, we haven't done it yet, and ya never know until ya do it!"

    As for mystery-type unknowns, I think those are exciting or not exciting based on stakes. Finding the next clue to some trivial footnote isn't exciting. Finding clues through grinding searches isn't exciting. But hunting for the secret answer that'll let you escape from the room that's rapidly filling with poison gas is exciting.

    I think you can have excitement with minimal risk, but it's a hard balance to strike. I think the players need to have some task to apply themselves to, and a certain pace of progress needs to be maintained. A module that keeps asking colorful questions and where player engagement keeps producing colorful answers will excite me. The uncertainty there is primarily, "What's the next fun bit gonna look like? Will I be the first one to get the answer?"

    The last kind of RPG excitement I can think of off the top of my head is creative riffing. Like if we're all GMing together and I make up a cool detail which inspires you to make up another cool detail, and we're all appreciating each other's input, I find that exciting. The uncertainty there is, "This thing we're building together, how's it gonna develop next?"

    So, overall, I think uncertainty matters, but is not the primary or obvious key to excitement. I think building investment in a direction or outcome, and then pursuing that is more central.
  • I think the uncertainty is key to the fun in most of your examples. A dilemma isn't dramatic if everyone knows what you'll choose. An opportunity isn't dramatic if everyone knows what the outcome will be. Asking questions isn't dramatic when you know the answers already.

    Is "creative riffing" dramatic or just exciting?
  • edited February 20
    Surprise is better for comedy, than it is for tragedy. Playing with an audiences expectations. I'm not gonna bring up the whole role-players aren't an audience thing, but...

    Adam, I think you're using a word(drama), in a way that isn't really true to definition. I mean, you can call a cat a dog, but if you want people to understand what you're talking about, we try and use a standard for communication. It can be difficult.
    Adam_Dray said:

    I think the uncertainty is key to the fun in most of your examples. A dilemma isn't dramatic if everyone knows what you'll choose. An opportunity isn't dramatic if everyone knows what the outcome will be. Asking questions isn't dramatic when you know the answers already.

    Is "creative riffing" dramatic or just exciting?

    Geez, I got lots to say on this. You and I are likely, different apes. It goes beyond the bullshit dichotomy of knowing/not-knowing. Drama is also, most importantly, what we care about. Do you know what you care about?

    Drama to me, is a fictional point of opposition, between two or more things. There's not-knowing, along with knowing. I don't know if it's of equal portions, but it seems so.




  • And to me, Adam everything is uncertain.
    I'd never use that adjective to clarify anything, because to me, it doesn't clarify much.
    It's just personal taste. I'm sure there's people out there who are fine with the word.
  • edited February 20
    Also, the word drama could be used to define something very specific. I'm probably viewing it differently. I mean, it's the nature of perspective.

    The word drama is both specific and vague. People use it to describe friction in personal relationships.
  • I find that uncertainty kills drama.
    Drama requires you to be deeply invested in characters, and uncertainty makes it much harder to invest in a meaningful emotional connection with characters.
  • I think the word is so broadly used and by so many people, attempting to refine the definition is just going to lead to confusion in gaming discussions, especially as it opens the door to equivocation (which is something I think can really become a problem in our hobby). I would suggest, if you want a finer definition, add a qualifier so people know what you mean.
  • Adam_Dray said:

    And because you (Nathan) said you don't know what uncertainty is, I mean a state where there's obviously some important knowledge missing

    It's interesting to me, that you use the word obviously when you define uncertainty.

  • edited February 20
    I don't find random uncertainty a great boon to story, but that's maybe another topic.

    It might offer a different perspective, or shake up preexisting patterns(habits you'd like to change), but to structure something, that somewhat resembles a story, with uncertainty occurring quite frequently, it's a bit mad.
  • I find personally that uncertainty in any way gets in the way of stories, whether it's random or not. But that's just my personal experience, you know?
    Stories work best when you plan them, plot them out, diagram them. When they're left to uncertainty, important things got lost in the mix, and the story falls apart.
    You might manage to create something worthwhile despite the uncertainty, but it's even more likely that you'll create something meandering, dull, and worthless.
  • Emma, I appreciate your additions here, because what you do is so different than what I do. It helps me remember that my play isn't universal.

    Same to you, Nathan. We might be "different apes" (ook!) and I like exploring that, too.

    As for definition wrangling, Brendan, I've been using "dramatic" in the sense of "that was a dramatic moment." I think people mean something specific there, and it has to do with story tension, I believe. I don't think I'm redefining it away from common usage. I think there are multiple ways people use it commonly. If you get my drift.

    Emma, even when you're methodically plotting out stories for an RPG, you're doing it collaboratively, right? The uncertainty there is what other people will bring to the table, I think. I'm not talking about randomness! Sure, randomness provides one kind of uncertainty, but it's not the only kind.

    So is "story tension" a decent way of thinking about drama?
  • edited February 20
    Adam_Dray said:

    I think the uncertainty is key to the fun in most of your examples.

    I mean, it is necessary, but it's also a given. "Hey, look, we aren't clairvoyant!" seems like a weird thing to focus on, to me. If you cover the bases I laid out, the necessary uncertainty is guaranteed to come along with them, without requiring any extra attention, I'd say.

    So I'd say that my replies much better answer the question of "What's dramatic?" than "uncertainty" does.
    Adam_Dray said:

    Is "creative riffing" dramatic or just exciting?

    If we're distinguishing between the two, then I would say "just exciting".
  • Emma,

    It's great having your take on this in this thread.

    A question for you:

    When you play a game, what elements ARE uncertain? Are there any "happy surprises"? Would playing entirely from a script be as satisfying?
  • Adam_Dray said:


    Emma, even when you're methodically plotting out stories for an RPG, you're doing it collaboratively, right? The uncertainty there is what other people will bring to the table, I think. I'm not talking about randomness! Sure, randomness provides one kind of uncertainty, but it's not the only kind.

    The thing is that uncertainty has been removed for a scene long before we play it out. The methodically plotting thing is a thing that happens before play and in between sessions. When a new idea is added, we then spend several sessions of play setting it up, foreshadowing it, building up to it. It's not a "this new idea gets thrown in immediately"; it's a "we add in this idea once we've had time to refine it and work out exactly how it needs to go to make it fit. Which like, that's not uncertain. It's not uncertain at all. It's just laying extra groundwork after we start.
    Paul_T said:

    Emma,

    It's great having your take on this in this thread.

    A question for you:

    When you play a game, what elements ARE uncertain? Are there any "happy surprises"? Would playing entirely from a script be as satisfying?

    Generally all that's really uncertain is lines of dialogue, but we always know the purpose of the dialogue before going into it. We just find it easier and more fulfilling to write the dialogue on the fly, and the descriptions of images and locale on the fly. We all know the purpose of all of it, and generally what it's going to be, but the precise execution is something that often gets worked out in the moment (with the exception of situations where something requires such precision and nuance that we need to know more details than average).
    Playing from a script would be completely enjoyable, as long as my group and I wrote the script together, and as long as out-of-game edits were possible in advance, if it feels like something isn't quite working, or if we think of a way that a scene could work better if it was written slightly differently.
  • Good answer, thanks! Totally fascinating.
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