Saturday, May 29, 2010

How "Glee" Creates Drama ("Theatricality")

How Glee Creates Drama (Theatricality)

A month ago, I came down with a severe case of writer's block.

Why? Besides going through my first major crisis as an adult, I came to a startling realization: I have no idea how to create drama. Not in the overarching plotline - that's easy for almost anybody. But creating an engaging, gripping story has almost nothing to with its main plotline. It's the dozens, even hundreds of tiny conflicts, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies that breathe life into a story.

With that in mind, Fox's Glee has dominated my free time lately. In my personal life, I avoid drama like the plague. As a writer, it's water in my creative desert. And what makes Glee a great show isn't its unique approach to the TV musical, or high school creativity. It's the brilliant, diverse cast of characters, and their struggle to cope with everyday trivialities. Glee's continuing plotline - winning the national Glee competition - is hardly mentioned in its last episode, "Theatricality." And yet, it was a completely successful episode.

As an aspiring writer, I found "Theatricality" fascinating. And I wanted to take a look at how Glee creates drama (tension) throughout "Theatricality":

  • Tina is called into the principal's office for her goth dress style. Conflict
  • Principal Figgins is worried about potential violence as a result. Conflict
  • Tina has to find a new way to dress. Conflict
  • Finn is introduced to a new house and family (surprise!) Conflict
  • The competition is singing Lady Gaga Conflict
  • Now they'll sing Gaga too. Attempted Solution
  • The straight guys don't like it Conflict
  • Spying on the competition. Conflict
  • Rache's mother doesn't like her team's performance. Conflict
  • Rachel meets her mother. Conflict
  • Her mother disappoints. Failed Solution
  • Finn confronts Shuester. Conflict
  • Guys have to come up with their own performance. Attempted Solution
  • Puck can't name his baby. Conflict
  • Glee members get bullied. Conflict
  • Tina's new style doesn't fit. Failed Solution
  • Glee members are given an ultimatum - change or get beat up. Conflict
  • Rachel's outfit sucks. Failed Solution
  • Finn gets bullied by his teamates. Conflict
  • Rachel needs an outfit - from her mother (what a convenient plot device!) Attempted Solution
  • The guys perform Sting. Attempted Solution
  • Kurt wants Finn to protect him. Failed Solution
  • Finn berates Kurt for expressing himelf. Conflict
  • Shuester confronts Rachel's mother. Attempted Solution
  • Finn hates Kurts room decoration. Failed Solution
  • They get into a fight Conflict
  • Burt steps in. Failed Solution
  • Puck tries a new kind of theatricality. Final Resolution
  • Rachel's mother tells her to go away. Failed Final Resolution
  • Tina confronts the principal. Final Resolution
  • Kurt is bullied again. Conflict
  • Finn and the Glee club step up. Final Resolution
That's  32 conflicts in 42 minutes of TV - minus about 10-12 minutes of song perfomance - basically one problem created, amplified or solved per minute. In the end, they toss in one "bad ending" so that the conflicts continue to hold significance and tension in following episodes. But they solve most of them to keep an overall positive, cheerful feeling.

A common thread to all of these conflicts is that they focus on individuals facing down challenges. They use the sheer volume to keep the pace fast, and they have such an established cast that they don't need to build these conflicts up with a lot of backstory - it's action from start to finish, with the exception of Rachel's story.

"Theatricality" creates seven unique tension points (Tina, Finn and Kurt, Rachel, Gaga, bullying, male expression, Puck), and advances them each about three times during the story. That doesn't leave a lot of room within the episode to develop their characters - because at this point, they don't really need to.

"Theatricality" was basically a filler episode, and that's fine. In any series, story or book, there's going to be a point when the main plot has to be put aside for the sake of the characters and story. Glee does this by using their established characters to carry the story, rather than the other way around.

These "filler" moments can make or break a long story, because they help define the people in it. With "Theatricality," Glee subtly gives a lot of characters more depth - Puck is trying to be a father, Tina wants to be herself, the guys have to become more expressive, Kurt continues to grow in pride, and Rachel shows both strength and vulnerability.

I came away from "Theatricality" caring more about most of Glee's characters,thoroughly entertained, and even a little bit mad at some characters. That's a very successful episode, where the main plot was barely mentioned, there was no single "goal," and the music and choreography were both disappointing.

One of my teachers told me that one of the best ways to improve as a writer is to read things you don't like (or don't normally read). But any medium can teach about story, and Glee creates drama as good as any show today. It's a great lesson in how to create an engaging cast, and the balance of success, failure and depth is one that I'll be playing with for months.

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