As a drama teacher and part-time playwright for thirty-two years, I believe dramatic concepts can be applied to other genres. You can put more drama in your writing by understanding dramatic writing.
The Greek word for drama, translated, means to do. In good drama, action grabs the viewer’s attention, for, at the least, all good writing is interesting.
So what is dramatic action and how can it be applied to other types of writing? First, consider what action in theater is not. Dramatic action is not to be confused with action-packed, the sometimes mindless, extravagant thrills of the movies. Dramatic action has purpose. Characters want something, usually from another character.
A director, in analyzing a script, must analyze all of the characters. Director’s define the action of the play, as well as help each actor find what his or her character wants in the play. Actors choose the most active, transitive verb they can find. For example, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac doesn’t just feel unrequited love, he wants to ravish Roxanne with his poetry (Roxanne is the object of Cyrano’s affections). If a character is not fully realized in your writing, try filling in this statement for him or her:
He/she wants + to + strong, transitive verb + object.
Cyrano wants + to + ravish+ Roxanne
Actors and directors look for strong actions because actions are playable; feelings are not. Even in short scenes of dialogue, check to see that each character has a strong, clear action. Actors are often told: you cannot play a quality, avoid the verb to be, acting is doing not being.
Show the character’s driving force through what they do, not just what they say, and the writing will engage the reader. If your writing lacks punch, it probably lacks dramatic action. If your story line is faltering, it may be because your characters are not committed to strong action. Make sure your character is doing and not just being or feeling.
In an even broader sense, conflict drives drama. If there are no opposing forces, there is probably not much drama. If your writing lacks punch, make sure there are forces pushing against each other. In theatre jargon, create obstacles, people or forces that thwart a character from getting what he or she wants.
Shakespeare mastered dramatic action. See how Iago plants the seeds for Othello’s destruction, tricking him with reverse psychology into believing his wife is unfaithful in the following passage:
Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like, Seeing you coming.
Sometimes, writing can be drama-less because the stakes are too low. A teacher teaching a class could be quite boring, but a teacher teaching students who cannot learn because their home lives are in shatters has the seeds for drama (Freedom Writers). Make sure conflict thrives. To summarize, make sure your characters are doing not just saying, and that conflict drives your work.