How Documentaries Show Us DramaSystem Scene Structure in Real Life

Yung Chang’s documentary China Heavyweight, now streaming at a video service near you, follows the impact of a high-school boxing program meant to recruit amateur fighters on two young men who buy their coaches’ promises of a way out of their poor tobacco-farming community. In addition to providing a window into cultural change in today’s China, its fly-on-the-wall style allows us to see real-life examples of the dramatic structure at the heart of Hillfolk.

In the game’s DramaSystem rules engine, conflicts between people who care about each other identify one participant in the dialogue scene as the petitioner and the other as the granter. The petitioner seeks an emotional reward or concession from the granter, who chooses either to grant it, or to withhold it. This structure underlies all dramatic storytelling, and is powerful because it boils down the ways we really interact with one another.

The style of documentary that simply shows us people behaving over time lets us see this in action.

In one scene, restless young would-be “boxing king” Yunfei Miao seeks his hardworking mother’s blessing to pursue his boxing dreams. Struggling to contain her anger, she sees nothing but disappointment from him, and withholds her approval. If this were a DramaSystem scene, Yunfei would be the petitioner and his mother the granter. She shuts him down, and he earns a drama token.

In another scene, Yunfei tells his coach he’s taken a construction job. After briefly protesting that the young man still has the potential to win, he resigns himself to Yunfei’s decision. Here Yunfei seeks his coach’s emotional acceptance and, after some resistance, gets it. In this case, the coach’s player would get a drama token, for granting Yunfei’s request.

In another instance, the two young boxers sit on a bench in a shopping district girlwatching. The shier of the two, He Zhongli, both fears and admires Yunfei’s apparent superior skill getting phone numbers. He seems to be petitioning Yunfei for tips, but under the surface really seeks permission to be shy. Yunfei, lost in his own cockiness, scarcely notices what is being asked of him. In a DramaSystem scene, He’s player would snag a drama token from Yunfei’s.

Next time you’re watching a character study doc shot in this style, watch for the petitioner/granter structure and the movement of invisible drama tokens across the screen.

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