Modern Film Dramaturgy

An Introduction

by Kerstin Stutterheim (Author)
©2019 Others 212 Pages


What makes a good movie? How can one analyse a film accordingly without primarily interpreting it? Dramaturgy can enrich film understanding, for those who make films, as well as for those who want to understand better why they are made how. Film Dramaturgy supports the creative process of filmmaking, especially the work of the authors, directors and producers. Students and professionals who are involved in the creation of a film also benefit from this knowledge. The understanding of dramaturgy supports film analysis and film criticism too. In some regions of the world, dramaturgy is well established; in other parts, it is less familiar.
This book provides a basic introduction to modern film dramaturgy. It emerges from academic research drawn from professional practice. It addresses students, scholars, colleagues, filmmakers and all professionals involved in making films, videos, audio-visual time-based media productions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Foreword
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • A Short Backstory of the Dramaturg and Modern Dramaturgy
  • The Beginning
  • Establishing Period
  • Modern Film Dramaturgy Emerging
  • Teaching Modern Dramaturgy for Film
  • Dramaturgy as Discipline and Practice
  • A Solid Foundation from the Outset
  • Explicit Dramaturgy
  • The Construction Principle
  • Recognition and Reverse
  • The End
  • Implicit Dramaturgy
  • Explicit and Implicit in Interaction – The Fifth Element
  • Brief Summary Film Dramaturgy
  • ‘The Big Five’ – Basic Dramaturgic Rules
  • Non-Replaceable and Immovable
  • In the Moment
  • Probability
  • To Surprise within the Familiar
  • Show, Don’t Tell
  • Essential Dramaturgical Features of Modern Films
  • ‘Non-Aristotelian’ Narration
  • Modern and Poetic — Open Dramaturgy
  • Epic Theatre – Poetic cinema
  • Explicit Dramaturgy and Scenic Structure for Modern Film
  • Scenic Narration
  • Ideal Starting Point
  • Prelude and Prologue, Inversion and Framing
  • The Incident to Start the Action
  • The Anchor: the ‘Essential Meaning’ and the ‘Point of Convergence’
  • Individual and Public Story Lines
  • ivan’s childhood
  • Heroic Anti-Heroes
  • The Central Self
  • The Centre Figure [Mittelpunktfigur]
  • The Open Ending
  • Implicit Dramaturgy and Aesthetic
  • Poetic Narration and the Spectator
  • A Cinema of Meaning
  • Metaphoric Narration and Cinematic Conflict
  • Activation of Space
  • Impact of Time
  • Leitmotif and Acoustic Counterpoint
  • V-Effekt – The Alienation-Effect
  • ‘The Unreliable Narration’ and Irony
  • Analytic, Episodic, Epic, Ensemble, and Multi-Perspective Movies
  • The Well-Made-Movie and its Analytical Structure
  • Intrigue and Counter-Intrigue — The Day of the Jackal
  • Epic Movies as Extended Drama
  • The Technique of Presenting the Epic Self as the Modern Protagonist
  • Episodic Narration
  • Still Life - The Good People of the Three Gorges
  • Narrating a Life – The Biographic Film
  • Dramaturgical Aspects of Multi-Perspective Narratives
  • Babel
  • Ensemble Films
  • The Road Movie
  • TV Series
  • Horizontal Dramaturgy
  • Vertical Dramaturgy
  • Auteur-Series and Visual Dramaturgy
  • European Well-Made Series
  • The Contemporary US Success Model(s)
  • Game of Thrones
  • Postscript
  • Table of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Movies, documentaries, TV series and games are part of our daily life in all its facets. Their structure, narrative techniques and conventions seem familiar and easy to understand. The tradition, which Jean-Claude Carrière once described as the “secret of narration”, can be presented through methods of aesthetics of which dramaturgy is a sub-discipline. Dramaturgy as practice-based knowledge emerges from expertise and contextualisation. It facilitates creative practice, which in turn is permanent proof of its theory.

Dramaturgy is a profession and an academic discipline. As a practice, it is part of all narrative-performative arts. In academia, dramaturgy is a sub-discipline of aesthetics. Dramaturgy emerges from professional praxis and is dedicated to supporting performative-narrative artworks. Film dramaturgy evolves from classical dramaturgy known from theatre but specific to the medium.

Narrative-performative works – from theatre to movies and some games – follow dramaturgically identifiable conventions, which may vary in different regions and traditions. Through dramaturgy, one will be able to identify the pattern and its variations. Accordingly, the work of a dramaturg can vary or be differently defined depending on traditions within a particular region and production context of films and time-based narrative-preformative artwork.1

Notwithstanding local, historical or technical impacts, dramaturgy as a discipline contains conceptional knowledge of composition and structure of dramatic work, and aspects of its effect in the staging. One can call this comprehensive understanding of the poetic architecture of an artwork.2 When explaining the inner systematics of philosophy, Immanuel Kant refers to the concept of structure as the architecture of pure reason.3

The definition used here is dramaturgy as the ‘dialectic of performative arts’. The theory of dialectics is a form of thinking that is not content with ←15 | 16→the conceptual order, but ‘accomplishes a feat of correcting the conceptual order through the appearance of objects’.4 In dialectical thinking, terms are continuously related to the processes or events to which they refer. This kind of reflection leads to changing definitional terms ‘in a certain relation to the progress of thought, without, however, abandoning the determinations that the term originally had.’5 That approach also applies to dramaturgy. Dramaturgical practice interrogates terms, categories, their meanings, and thus, the praxis gets continuously reviewed and renewed. Correspondingly, one cannot distinguish practice and theory from each other. Both should inform the expertise of a dramaturg.

Dramaturgical knowledge can be applied to all works regardless of their technical condition or execution. Even works, originated with no involvement of a dramaturg, follow a dramaturgy – which is applied consciously or unconsciously. Dramaturgical knowledge can bring stimuli as well as a certainty to creative artistic practice, mainly when used deliberately. However, a playwright, screenwriter or a director acting as dramaturg as well should consider environmental or situational aspects as well. For this reason, some vital differences distinguish film dramaturgy from theatre dramaturgy, in both the classical as well as the contemporary context.6

This book emerges from many years of experience in academia, higher education, and professional practice. It addresses students, scholars, colleagues, filmmakers and all professionals involved in making films, videos, audio-visual time-based media productions. It provides an introduction to modern film dramaturgy. It begins with a short introduction to the background of the discipline, how it emerged, and how it became established and how it is taught to the best of my knowledge. In the second chapter, the fundamental aspects of film dramaturgy and its basic rules get introduced. Chapter three discusses issues of peculiarities of modern dramaturgy, which is frequently referred to as the non-Aristotelian narrative. Also presented are distinctive features in the design of characters that differ from the classic heroic figure. It presents particularities of aesthetic design and thus of implicit dramaturgy. I will discuss the relationship between the ←16 | 17→director, their artwork and the audience; and the concept of the cinema of meaning as well as the potential of arranging time and space chronologically or non-chronologically. In chapter four, a few patterns of modern dramaturgy get explained using several widely known and easy accessible movies as object of studies. Chapter five gives an overview of how modern film dramaturgy can be adapted for TV series. Opportunities and models will be discussed based on the above principles and selected examples.

This book draws on earlier texts on the topic, which were published in German as for example the Handbuch Angewandter Dramaturgie (Peter Lang Verlag 2015, 356 pages), Handbuch der Filmdramaturgie (2009 and 2011, Peter Lang) and Game of Thrones sehen – Eine dramaturgische Studie einer TV Serie (Fink Verlag, 2017).

Over the last two decades, I taught film dramaturgy at the Film University “Konrad Wolf” Babelsberg7 and as a guest scholar at many other universities, such as the Aalto University Helsinki and the Universidade Federal da Bahia. I am regularly invited to give workshops on dramaturgy for filmmakers and professionals from a variety of disciplines. The present text has its roots in the study of dramaturgy at Deutsches Theater Berlin and the Humboldt University Berlin, Faculty of Philosophy II, and grows out of my experience as a dramaturg, author, filmmaker and lecturer over three decades. I have regularly published about film dramaturgy since 2010.8

Special thanks to Glenda Hambly, Sue Warren, Trevor Peters and Maike Helmers; I also want to thank James Fair, Gabbi Kalms, Peter Kalms, Maurice Michaels, and Tony Stoller for discussing the script and supporting me with their suggestions, as well as Kirsten Otto from the library of the Film University Konrad Wolf for her valuable support in securing specialised sources. And, last but not least, many thanks to my son Jasper Stutterheim, who supplied me with the graphs and the cover page to give my thoughts and concepts a visual expression. I want to thank my family and everyone who has stood by me during the time of writing this book.

←17 | 18→←18 | 19→

1 Cf. Romanska 2015; Turner & Behrndt 2016

2 Bachtin 1979, p. 106; Bachtin 2008a p. 36

3 Kant 1974, p. 15 et sequ.,

4 Adorno 2010, p. 18

5 Ibid.

6 Cf. Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson 2006, p. 17; Carrière 1999, p. 160

7 Before it was known as HFF as well as Film Academy ‘Konrad Wolf’

8 Cf. Stutterheim 2010, 2013b, 2013c, 2013d, 2014a, 2014b, 2017; Stutterheim & Lang 2013; Stutterheim & Kaiser 2011, etc.

A Short Backstory of the Dramaturg and Modern Dramaturgy

The Beginning

Although the study of technique and practice in drama and dramatic writing originated in Ancient Greece, dramaturgy as a discipline and practice began with the work of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781). Lessing was an author, philosopher and critic, best known for Laocoon: or, The limits of Poetry and Painting (1766),9 Minna von Barnhelm (1763–67),10 Emilia Galotti (1772),11 and Nathan the Wise (1779).12 Lessing was quite likely the first dramaturg ever appointed anywhere in the world. He served in this position at Hamburg’s National Theatre, Europe’s first permanent national theatre, from 1767–1770. One of his key responsibilities was to advise the theatre management and the creative team on how to attract an audience. Lessing analysed performance by concentrating, in particular, on the relationship between the quality of the playwright’s work, it’s staging, the actor’s performance and the audience’s response. Lessing’s responsibility was to advise theatre productions from the planning stage through the rehearsal phase to their performance. The function of the dramaturg enabled Lessing to analyse and discuss why some performances were more successful than others. Inspecting and describing this precisely, he published a series of texts, which became known as Hamburgische Dramaturgie [Hamburg Dramaturgy] (1767–1769).13 This collection of writings is, to my knowledge, the first book ever published on the subject of dramaturgy, which hence laid the foundation of its theory and practice.

To this day, the dramaturg, whether for theatre or film, gives the entire production cohesion. The dramaturgy provides production with a backbone. That applies regardless of whether it is theatre, performance or film. ←19 | 20→Like Lessing, the dramaturg mediates between the text, the performance and the audience.

Establishing Period

Inspired by the concept of dramaturgy introduced by Lessing and propagated through his publications, a broad discourse about dramaturgical issues began.14 Influential authors and philosophers, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), Georg Büchner (1813–1837), Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), to name a few, began to analyse their work as well as the work of others, employing Lessing’s methodology.15


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (September)
Film Dramaturgy Modern Film Poetic Cinema
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019., 212 pp., 20 fig. col., 26 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Kerstin Stutterheim (Author)

Kerstin Stutterheim is professor of Media and Cultural Studies as well as the director of the Centre of Film and TV research at Bournemouth University, Faculty of Media and Communication. She is also a filmmaker, dramaturg, author. Prior, she was professor of Dramaturgy and Aesthetics of Audio-Visual Media at Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf (former HFF). She is a member of the German Film Academy.


Title: Modern Film Dramaturgy