Drama’s Personal Journey

What is the Personal Drama Journey?

Those familiar with screenwriting theory may have heard of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, and the underlying concepts of Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ or ‘Save the Cat’.  All of these narrative structures , which some claim are the structures for a successful film, are based upon the framework of the Personal Drama genre.  In this blog I will outline the key aspect of this strong and popular genre framework, with examples, and  hopefully show that there are five main types of personal drama currently being used in the world today.

In general, genre as a term of reference has been seen to be a largely cinematic concern, while personal dramas dominate television. However, in order to see the genre it is easier to look at its manifestation in a one-off linear form first, i.e. film, rather than in the television series form. Therefore, the following definition of the genre is based upon personal dramas within feature film narratives, but with a few examples from television to illustrate the parallels. NOTE: Other people have seen this framework work in novels and theatre – so whatever form of writing you are interested in, this genre will probably apply to your writing at some point.

As with my blog on romances the primary elements those which set the franework for Personal Drama journey’s are based upon the combination of stories, themes, dramatic form, characterisation and style.

The secondary elements within the framework lead to the specific types of genre.

On this basis the following types of genre can be identified:-

  1. The Inner drama – concerned with the state of someone’s mind
  1. The Domestic Drama – focused on family and work relationships
  1. Rites of Passage – concerned with the transitions at different stages in life
  1. The Communal Drama – looking at the conflict between individuals and their society
  1. The Epic Drama – individual stories set against a conflict between societies

Primary Elements

The primary defining qualities of the personal drama are:-

  1. A single isolated protagonist, who undergoes or attempts a major transformation of themselves or their world.Note: the nature of this isolation is dependent on the type of genre.
  2. A distinct world with which the protagonist is at odds.
  3. The dominant story types are a quest, or the character who cannot be put down.
  4. The dramatic structure is a linear framework, but often has an episodic form.
  5. Thematically it is either a desire for order, or the desire for validation.
  6. The central character’s dramatic arc is enormous compared with the changes within the characters of other genres.
  7. The dominant style is expressionist, but naturalism is also commonly used.

These seven key elements can be found in anyone of the five personal drama types, which is why I have brought them together to illustrate the power of these elements in the initial defining of a genre for audiences.

There are five types of personal dramas derived from these basic elements, which are defined by the nature of the central dramatic conflict.


These combine the primary elements with other narrative elements to create distinct genre groups of key elements.

  1. The Inner drama

Seen by most screenwriters as one of the most difficult conflicts to realise on screen as it focuses  on an inner conflict of the central character.

  1. The central character dominates the narrative space and is in every scene, in some way.
  2. The central problem of the character drives the plot, and provides the motivation for all the action.
  3. The main character provides a narrow point of view on all events. The use of voice over is common.
  4. The second story is often also the main character’s story. This is the mechanism by which the main character dominates the narrative.
  5. Secondary characters are merely used to express the options the central character has with respect to their problem.
  6. Thematically it centers primarily on a desire for order but the theme of  validation has been used in the recent past e.g. A Beautiful Mind..

Examples include ‘Lost Weekend’; ‘My Dinner with Andre’;   ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’; ‘Raging Bull’; ‘Being John Malkovich.’ The Piano Teacher’; ’A Beautiful Mind’

The Domestic Drama

Relationship based drama which does not focus on romance but more on family or work relationships.

  1. The main story is about the central relationship/s which is/are either familial or situational i.e. it is not a romance.
  2. The central problem for the main protagonist is that the other character/s present a threat to their world.
  3. The second story has equal weight with the first, similar to a romance plot.
  4. Secondary characters merely present additional problems for the main characters.
  5. Locations are restricted, with much action set in interiors.
  6. The thematically it centers on a desire for validation.

Examples include  ‘Clerks’; ‘Terms of Endearment’; ‘My Life as a Dog’; ‘Short Cuts’; ‘American Beauty’; ‘Only Fools and Horses’; and most Soaps.

  1. Rites of Passage

These are essentially a variation on the Domestic drama with 3,4,5. and 6. remaining the same but the focus in 1. and 2. being slightly different.

  1. Often the main story centers on a teenager, or a group of teenagers, who wish to be seen as more adult.  However, rights of passage have now been used to deal with transitions later in life.
  2. The central problem is seen as a challenge to the protagonist/s current way of dealing with their life/situation.

Examples include ‘Stand By Me’; ‘The Year My Voice Broke‘; ‘On Golden Pond’; ‘Muriel’s Wedding’; ‘American Pie’ ‘Hollyoaks’; ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’.

  1. The Communal Drama

Different from the domestic as this about the individual against their community, however that might be defined e.g. work environment.

  1. The main story places the protagonist/s at odds with their community.
  2. The second story reflects the same conflict.
  3. The plot is driven by the main character/s desire to avoid, or resolve, the conflict.
  4. Secondary characters reflect the acceptance of the wider community position.
  5. The setting is restricted to a particular community setting, but several individual locations are common.
  6. Thematically it centers on the desire for validation or the desire for order.

Examples:- ‘Raise the Red Lantern’; ‘A short film about Killing’; ‘Thelma and Louise’; ‘The Full Monty’;’ The Fisher King’  ‘Goodbye Lenin’; ‘Masters of Sex’.

Note: this genre often provides the framework for narratives, which can be described as melodrama

  1. The Epic Drama

The key here is the conflict between societies which provide the context for the personal journeys.

  1. The main story centers on the protagonist/s desire to change, or experience, a wider world.
  2. The second story is a major conflict between differing cultures or value systems.
  3. The plot is driven by the changing circumstances of the second story’s major conflict.
  4. The locations are various and are determined by the development of the major conflict.
  5. Point of view is omnipresent, with many scenes not involving the main character.
  6. Thematically it centers on a desire for validation.
  7. The style is dominated by naturalism with very few expressionist elements. However, as with action thrillers the scale of events means that scale becomes a major part of the style. This impacts on locations, crowd scenes, and mise-en-scene details.

Examples include ‘The Battle for Algiers’; ‘Ghandi’; Lawrence of Arabia‘; ‘The Last Emperor’; ‘Dances with Wolves’; ‘The Killing Fields’; ‘La Reine Margot’ ‘Lord of the Rings’.

This provides an overview of how personal dramas work, and where the oft told structural device of the Hero’s journey sits within contemporary screen narratives.

You can read more about genres and how all the different elements work in my book  ‘The Art and Science of Screenwriting’: Phil Parker: Intellect Books

This entry was posted in Art of development, Genre and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.