In film and television, drama is a category of narrative fiction (or semi-fiction) intended to be more serious than humorous in tone. Drama of this kind is usually qualified with additional terms that specify its particular super-genre, macro-genre, or micro-genre, such as soap opera (operatic drama), police crime drama, political drama, legal drama, historical drama, domestic drama, teen drama, and comedy-drama (dramedy). These terms tend to indicate a particular setting or subject-matter, or else they qualify the otherwise serious tone of a drama with elements that encourage a broader range of moods.
All forms of cinema or television that involve fictional stories are forms of drama in the broader sense if their storytelling is achieved by means of actors who represent (mimesis) characters. In this broader sense, drama is a mode distinct from novels, short stories, and narrative poetry or songs. In the modern era before the birth of cinema or television, "drama" within theatre was a type of play that was neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It is this narrower sense that the film and television industries, along with film studies, adopted. "Radio drama" has been used in both senses—originally transmitted in a live performance, it has also been used to describe the more high-brow and serious end of the dramatic output of radio.
Types of drama in film and television
The Screenwriters Taxonomy contends that film genres are fundamentally based upon a film’s atmosphere, character and story, and therefore the labels “drama” and “comedy” are too broad to be considered a genre. Instead, the taxonomy contends that film dramas are a “Type” of film; listing at least ten different sub-types of film and television drama.
- Dramas dealing with intensely serious issues. (Film examples: Oldboy  and Requiem for a Dream )
- Dramatized adaptation of real-life events. While not always completely accurate, the general facts are more-or-less true. The difference between a docudrama and a documentary is that in a documentary it uses real people to describe history or current events; in a docudrama it uses professionally trained actors to play the roles in the current event, that is "dramatized" a bit. (Film examples: Black Mass  and Zodiac )
- Different from docudramas, docu-fictional films combine documentary and fiction, where actual footage or real events are intermingled with recreated scenes. (Film examples: Interior. Leather Bar  and Your Name Here )
- A serious story that contains some characters or scenes inherently humorous to the audience. (Film examples: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel , The Man Without a Past , Silver Linings Playbook , Three Colours: White  and The Truman Show )
- Coined by film professor Ken Dancyger, these stories exaggerate characters and situations to the point of becoming fable, legend or fairy tale. (Film examples: Fantastic Mr. Fox  and Maleficent )
- Light-hearted stories that are, nevertheless, serious in nature. (Film examples: The Help  and The Terminal )
- Satire can involve humor, but the end result is typically sharp social commentary that is anything but funny. Satire often uses irony or exaggeration to expose faults in society or individuals that influence social ideology. (Film examples: Idiocracy  and Thank You for Smoking )
- Straight Drama applies to those that do not attempt a specific approach to drama but, rather, consider drama as a lack of comedic techniques. (Film examples: Ghost World  and Wuthering Heights  )
According to the Screenwriters Taxonomy, all film descriptions should contain their type (comedy or drama) combined with one (or more) of the eleven super-genres. This combination does not create a separate genre, but rather, provides a better understanding of the film.
According to the taxonomy, combining the type with the genre does not create a separate genre. For instance, the “Horror Drama” is simply a dramatic horror film (as opposed to a comedic horror film). “Horror Drama” is not a genre separate from the horror genre or the drama type.
Action dramas tend to be visceral, not intellectual, with dynamic fight scenes, extensive chase scenes, and heart-racing stunts. The hero is nearly always sharp-witted, quick on their feet, and able to improvise mentally and physically. The hero begins the film with an internal problem, quickly followed by an external problem. By story’s end, the hero resolves both problems. Examples of action dramas include Die Hard (1988) and the Mad Max series.
Crime dramas explore themes of truth, justice, and freedom, and contain the fundamental dichotomy of "criminal vs. lawman". Crime films make the audience jump through a series of mental "hoops"; it is not uncommon for the crime drama to use verbal gymnastics to keep the audience and the protagonist on their toes. Examples of crime dramas include: The Big Short (2015), The Godfather (1972), and The Usual Suspects (1995).
In a drama thriller, the protagonist is often an unwitting hero reluctantly drawn into the story and must do battle with an epic villain to save the lives of innocent victims; the hero inevitably finds himself deeply involved in a situation involving insane criminals with a very dark past, who will threaten, double-cross, and kill anyone who stands in their way.
According to screenwriter and scholar Eric R. Williams:
Even the typical good guys in other genres (the police, detectives, and guards) can't be trusted in a thriller. Granted, there are "good guys" in a thriller, but the audience and hero never really know who they are until the end. Thrillers explore the ideas of Hope and Fear, constantly tearing the hero (and more importantly: the audience) between these two extremes. It is not uncommon to have the audience hope that the hero will defeat the villain yet remain fearful that they will not. Often, there is a central mystery that the protagonist must solve, one that is obfuscated from the audience and the hero, so that it is difficult to know what is needed to successfully unravel the impending sense of doom that hangs over the hero.
According to Eric R. Williams, the hallmark of fantasy drama films is "a sense of wonderment, typically played out in a visually intense world inhabited by mythic creatures, magic and/or superhuman characters. Props and costumes within these films often belie a sense of mythology and folklore – whether ancient, futuristic, or other-worldly. The costumes, as well as the exotic world, reflect the personal, inner struggles that the hero faces in the story." Examples of fantasy dramas include: Life of Pi (2012), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009).
Horror dramas often take place during modern day with the central characters isolated from the rest of society. These characters are often teenagers or people in their early twenties (the genre’s central audience) and are eventually killed off during the course of the film. Thematically, horror films often serve as a morality tale, with the killer serving up violent penance for the victims’ past sins. Metaphorically, these become battles of Good vs. Evil or Purity vs. Sin. The Conjuring, Psycho, Halloween, and Friday the 13th are examples of horror drama films.
Life drama (day-in-the-life)
Day-in-the-life films takes small events in a person’s life and raises their level of importance. The “small things in life” feel as important to the protagonist (and the audience) as the climactic battle in an action film, or the final shootout in a western. Often, the protagonists deal with multiple, overlapping issues in the course of the film – just as we do in life. Films of this type/genre combination include: 12 Years a Slave (2013), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Moonlight (2016), and The Wrestler (2008).
Romantic dramas are films with central themes that reinforce our beliefs about love (e.g.: themes such as “love at first sight”, “love conquers all”, or “there is someone out there for everyone”); the story typically revolves around characters falling into (and out of, and back into) love. Annie Hall (1977), Carol (2015), Her (2013), La La Land (2016) and The Notebook (2004) are examples of romance dramas.
Science fiction drama
The science fiction drama film is often the story of a protagonist (and her allies) facing something “unknown” that has with the potential to change the future of humanity; this unknown may be represented by a villain with incomprehensible powers, a creature we don’t understand, or a scientific scenario that threatens to change the world; the science fiction story forces the audience to consider the nature of human beings, the confines of time or space, and/or the concepts of human existence in general. Examples include: Blade Runner (1982), Children of Men (2006), Clockwork Orange (1971), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Ready Player One (2018).
Obviously, in the sports super-genre, characters will be playing sports. Thematically, the story is often one of “Our Team” versus “Their Team”; their team will always try to win, and our team will show the world that they deserve recognition or redemption; the story does not always have to involve a team. The story could also be about an individual athlete or the story could focus on an individual playing on a team. Examples of this genre/type include: Hoosiers (1986), The Hustler (1961), Moneyball (2011), and Remember the Titans (2000).
War films typically tells the story of a small group of isolated individuals who – one by one – get killed (literally or metaphorically) by an outside force until there is a final fight to the death; the idea of the protagonists facing death is a central expectation in a war film. In a war film even though the enemy may out-number, or out-power, the hero, we assume that the enemy can be defeated if only the hero can figure out how. Examples include: 1944 (2015), Apocalypse Now (1979), Hacksaw Ridge (2016), The Hurt Locker (2008), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Wildeye (2015).
Films in the western super-genre often take place in the American Southwest or Mexico, with a large number of scenes occurring outdoors so we can soak in scenic landscapes. Visceral expectations for the audience include fistfights, gunplay, and chase scenes. There is also the expectation of spectacular panoramic images of the countryside including sunsets, wide open landscape and endless deserts and sky. Examples of western dramas include: Django Unchained (2012), Hell or High Water (2016), Mad Max (1979), No Country for Old Men (2007), and Unforgiven (1992).
Some film categories that use the word “comedy” or “drama” are not recognized by the Screenwriters Taxonomy as either a film genre or a film type. For instance, “Melodrama” and “Screwball Comedy” are considered Pathways, while “Romantic Comedy” and “Family Drama” are macro-genres.
- a macro-genre in the Screenwriters Taxonomy. These films tell a where many of the central characters are related. The story revolves around how the family as a whole reacts to a central challenge. There are four micro-genres for the Family Drama: Family Bond, Family Feud, Family Loss, and Family Rift.
- a sub-type of drama films that uses plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodramatic plots often deal with "crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship". Film critics sometimes use the term "pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, camp tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences". Also called "women's movies", "weepies", tearjerkers, or "chick flicks". If they are targeted to a male audience, then they are called "guy cry" films. Often considered "soap-opera" drama.
- character development based on themes involving criminals, law enforcement and the legal system.
- films that focus on dramatic events in history.
- Focuses on doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and ambulance saving victims and the interactions of their daily lives
- "Drama". Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 2015.
a play, movie, television show, that is about a serious subject and is not meant to make the audience laugh
- Williams, Eric R., (2017). The screenwriters taxonomy : a roadmap to collaborative storytelling. New York, NY: Routledge Studies in Media Theory and Practice. ISBN 978-1-315-10864-3. OCLC 993983488.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Elam (1980, 98).
- Banham (1998, 894–900).
- Williams, Eric R., (2017). Screen adaptation : beyond the basics : techniques for adapting books, comics, and real-life stories into screenplays. New York: Focal Press. ISBN 978-1-315-66941-0. OCLC 986993829.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Turchiano, Danielle; Turchiano, Danielle (4 June 2018). "The Importance of Leaning Into Dark Dramas During Dark Times in History (Column)". Variety. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- "Documentary Is Never Neutral | Television Docudrama as Alternative Records of History". www.documentaryisneverneutral.com. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- "Producing Docu-Fiction | Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University". documentarystudies.duke.edu. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- Williams, Eric R. (2019). Falling in Love with Romance Movies (Episode #3 Comedy and Tragedy: Age Does Not Protect You ). Audible.
- Dancyger, Ken. (2015). Alternative scriptwriting : beyond the hollywood formula. England: Focal. ISBN 1-138-17118-2. OCLC 941876150.
- Jones, Phil, 1958 April 22- (2007). Drama as therapy : theory, practice, and research (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-41555-2. OCLC 85485014.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Williams, Eric R. (2019). Falling in Love with Romance Movies (Episode #8 Satire and Social Commentary). Audible.
- Williams, Eric. R. (2018). "How to View and Appreciate Great Movies (episode #4: Genre Layers and Audience Expectations)". English. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
- "Thriller & Suspense". The SilverScreen Analysis. 19 November 2016. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- Williams, Eric R. (2019). Falling in Love with Romance Movies (Episode #2 Genre: To Feel the Sun on Both Sides). Audible.
- Williams, Eric R. (2018). "How to View and Appreciate Great Movies (Episode #6 Themes on Screen)". English. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- Firestein, David J. (2007). "Fields of Dreams: American Sports Movies". E journal USA. 12.
- Williams, Eric R. (2018). "How to View and Appreciate Great Movies (episode #22 Pathways to Great Antagonists)". English. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
- Williams, Eric R. (2018). "How to View and Appreciate Great Movies (episode #3 Movie Genre: It's Not What You Think)". English. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
- "Greatest Tearjerkers - Scenes and Moments". www.filmsite.org. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- "Melodramas Films". www.filmsite.org. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
- Cook, Pam, and Mieke Bernink, eds. 1999. The Cinema Book. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-851-70726-2.
- Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0-416-72060-9.
- Hayward, Susan. 1996. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. Key Concepts ser. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10719-9.
- Neale, Steve. 2000. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02606-7.
- Sheehan, Helena. 1987. Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories ISBN 0-86029-011-5
- Williams, Eric R. (2017) The Screenwriters Taxonomy: A Roadmap to Creative Storytelling. New York, NY: Routledge Press, Studies in Media Theory and Practice. ISBN 978-1-315-10864-3.