On-Line English Literature Discussion: Being Dramatic

What makes drama different from narrative and poetry?

It’s not a trick question. It is, however, a rather broad question, posed by my first-year English teacher. I attempted to answer it, addressing a few of the most apparent considerations, without by any means giving a comprehensive analysis:

A narrative, especially one with an omniscient voice like Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” can give greater depth of detail, motivation, and action than a play possibly could. Details like setting in a play are skeletal and must have an important plot function, unlike in a narrative where you can paint the setting to your heart’s content. In a play, motivation is often communicated by soliloquy, or sometimes in a narrative chorus, both artificial means of communicating thoughts to the audience, very different from having motivation communicated to the reader directly as in a narrative. Also, in a play (especially reading it) a lot of the action has to be understood rather than shown. While you’d think a play would have more expressive action than a narrative, there are things difficult to perform on a stage like Shakespeare’s, whereas in a narrative you can write your characters into believably doing almost anything.

5 October 2016

I all but ignored the comparison with poetry. To be fair, we were dealing with Chaucer at the time, which is narrative “poetry” (narrative written in verse), if you want to view it that way… as I did, apparently. So I figured I had the broader base of the question covered. But I could expand upon my observation of how differently narrative and drama handle the three areas I mentioned.

Narrative stories can depend upon–wait for it–the narrative to propel the characters and plot. Narrative allows the writer to show a lot of small things that add up to create depth and meaning in the characters and their motivations, which in turn drive the plot. Details of setting can reveal a character’s propensities for art, or carelessness, or obsessive compulsive behaviours. Their routine and how interruptions make them feel or react to others can reveal character and mood, which will establish a pattern of behaviour that can be reworked for maximum impact and development at important turning points in the story. In drama, on the other hand, meaning beyond the dialogue has to be conveyed in the clearest, most concise way possible. It also has to be obvious and uncomplicated to grab the audience’s attention in a meaningful way–like a specific prop or an obvious quirk in a character’s appearance, mannerisms, or speech.

Action is similarly varied between narrative and drama. A narrative may carry on a detailed description of a huge scene of chase or battle or what-have-you, and use it as an opportunity not only to further the plot but also reveal and build some character. A drama is limited to the space on the stage and the importance of the action–if it’s not critical that the audience actually sees the act, it can be covered in someone’s dialogue. A great deal of important action happens off-stage and is either prefaced by someone stating intent, or followed by someone relating the occurence–the audience is lucky if they get someone chasing another off-stage with drawn sword and then staggering back on to die of their wounds.

Due to the relative effectiveness of non-verbals in narrative versus drama, the way each treats dialogue is radically different. In a narrative, the dialogue tends to be sparser and more natural, largely serving as necessary communication between characters within the story. In drama, because the non-verbal signs have to be so condensed and simplified, dialogue takes on a greater role of communication, not only between characters themselves, but between characters and audience. Cue the soliloquy. The argument could be made that first person narratives are like one big dramatic soliloquy. But, because first person POV usually imitates the style of a regular narrative rather than the flowery, philosophical, expositional ramblings after the manner of Hamlet and his ilk, the generalization holds true that narrative and drama tend to convey most of their story through narrative and dialogue respectively.

As for the difference between drama and poetry–drama can contain or partially consist of poetry, and poetry can be narrative… but then, to complete the circle, can narrative be drama? Well, if said narrative is narrative poetry, and poetry can be part of drama, then it follows that, yes, narrative can be drama. In fact, a drama can have a literal narrator. But whether or not that title, narrator, has a physical manifestation, dramas symbolize a narrative. Like any art, stories tend to be hard to classify as completely one thing or another. Drama can include poetry and implies narrative, poetry may be narrative, and narrative may be poetic. I subscribe to the Sir Philip Sidney school of thought that

there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets.

The Defense of Poesy

Truthfully, I have more often encountered “excellent poets that never versified” than the reverse, but that’s because I haven’t read as much verse as I have prose. I defy anyone to read the novel Dombey & Son and come out the other side denying that Dickens is a poet.

Allow me to utilize a horribly fraught comparison to distinguish what I perceive to be the general, largescale differences between drama, poetry, and narrative. Drama is like impressionist art–it fills in the scene with the fuzziest corners necessary to convey the meaning, creating an imprecise, yet communicative picture. Poetry is like expressionist art–it uses colourful language and selective patterns to express and elicit emotions rather than specific meanings. Narrative is like realist art–it is closest to life-like, sharpening the soft outlines of drama, filling in the gaps left by poetry, and calling upon correct representation of the details. The medium used will depend upon what story you’re telling and what you’re trying to achieve with it.

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