How to Increase Drama By Using Ingenious Complications

hand writing book phone cafe napkin

By Scott McConnell

Good film stories need more than strong central conflicts. They also need their conflicts and events to be dramatized in ingenious ways. Take, for example, an ingenious complication in the play Ross by master playwright/screenwriter Terence Rattigan. Ross dramatizes the exploits and self-conflicts of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence becomes so successful a raider and saboteur against the Turkish forces during World War 1 that the Turkish General (the villain of the play) places a reward of £10,000 on the head of “Emir Dynamite.” The General then sends his Captain to inform famed Arab bandit and warrior—and highly paid ally—Auda Abu Tayi of this reward, believing that Lawrence is soon to meet with the bandit to persuade him to join his war against the Turks.

In a multi-layered and powerfully suspenseful scene, Auda allows Lawrence into his tent, torn between his honor as a great warrior, thus to help “El Aurens” fight the Turks, and his desire for the gold and gifts the Turks are buying him with. Auda’s choice to join or betray Lawrence is greatly complicated when the Turkish Captain arrives with a bribe Auda has much desired. 

While the three men are alone in the tent, Auda admires the nerve, wit and choices that Lawrence demonstrates during the great danger of his being recognized by the Captain. Outfoxed by the cool Lawrence, Auda makes his choice, for Lawrence and war.

This scene is ingenious because it uses one clever, integrating event to climax important lines of conflict and it is an event that makes the choices of all three characters the hardest they can be. A poor way to have climaxed these conflicts would have been to do it in two separate scenes. One between Auda and the Captain, and then one between Auda and Lawrence, for example.

By having all three characters in the one scene, and by making it life changing for Auda, and life threatening for Lawrence, and by playing Lawrence in disguise with all the ironic suspense flowing from that, the scene is gripping and entertaining. The stakes are high for all three characters at the same time (and one—the Captain—doesn’t even know it but we do) and Auda’s final choice dramatically influences the rest of the story.

Such condensed high drama played on many levels pulls the audience to the edge of their seats. Rattigan’s prodigious skill demonstrates an important lesson regarding story complications: Imagination + integration + irony + stakes = great drama. An important lesson for all filmmakers. 

Scott McConnell is a writer and story consultant in Melbourne, Australia.