Project 2015, Part 7: Being mysterious isn’t the same as writing good drama.
What do we mean by “writing good drama?”
Recently, a great conversation with a client prompted us both to articulate an important principle of fiction writing: being mysterious isn’t the same thing as writing good drama. In other words, when the narrator deliberately withholds information from the reader for the sake of creating a “compelling” sense of mystery, it usually fails. It fails because the reader either (1) doesn’t get it, because the writer is being too vague, or (2) doesn’t like it, because the writer is being coy.
The goal: Push yourself to identify the places where you deliberately obscure vital facts, and question whether you can convert it to dramatic writing, instead. Unlike being mysterious, writing good drama uses what we know.
Here are a few books I’ve read recently, and think the drama is pretty amazing:
An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, is a current NYT bestseller and a well-written, well-crafted fantasy that draws on the ancient Roman presence in the Middle East.
When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan, was a bestseller last year. The comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are merited, though Atwood’s poetry background always gives her an edge in a prose comparison.
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, swept the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is a great example of how translations of science fiction from around the world are changing the face of the genre here. I’m reading it now, and am so excited about it.
All three of these novels kept me reading past bedtime. It made me think of that conversation with my client, so I put together this little tutorial. Since I can’t assume you’ve read all (or any) of these three novels, though, let’s start with a made-up example of our own.
You’re writing a story about a strained marriage between two thirty-somethings. The wife’s volatile younger brother moves into the house after he’s been evicted by a series of other roommates. He promises it’ll only be for a month–until he gets a better job and sorts out his finances. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Now, say your goal is to write a plot twist where he comes home from work and announces that he bought a plane ticket to Italy for spring break. The husband is furious, but the wife says she gave him a little money toward the trip. It’ll get him out of the house, and he’s family. What’s your problem with that? Then the husband overreacts and kicks the brother out of the house; there’s a fistfight… and basically, now it’s this big, fat melodrama that leaves us wondering why everyone overreacted. We feel distant from the characters and confused about the action.
As in most stories, there are a number of secrets that only come to light once the decisions have been made: the wife’s gift of money, the purchase of the ticket, the desire to get out of the country. If you fail to front-load enough details about the characters’ motivations, the reader is going to feel confused. When I’m editing a manuscript that has obscured too much information–i.e., not given me enough hints–I’ll ask things like, “Why does he do this? Why did she? Can you show their reasons better? But I thought he was working? I thought the husband and wife were both annoyed at him?” In other words: huh?
How do you prevent the “huh?”
There are certainly times where the writer meant well, and just didn’t give us enough hints; that’s what revision is for. But sometimes, the writer deliberately withholds key information (e.g., the sister’s sense of loyalty to her brother, his desire to go to Italy, his underestimation of the husband’s disdain for his frivolity), thinking that it will make the surprise somehow bigger.
But think about the twists and turns of your favorite books. They probably didn’t leave you utterly confused–on the contrary, you probably saw the danger a mile away, and dreaded it, and were on the edge of your seat as it came to pass in the worst way possible. The character’s boat goes over the waterfall; the crooked partner screws the company out of money; the heroine gets captured by the enemy soldiers; the grandmother leaves her farm to the other sibling.
This is drama. It uses what you KNOW. You’re attached enough to the character that you don’t want it to happen; you don’t know exactly when or how it will happen. But it does. And then you are up until 1 a.m., glued to the story, needing to know how the characters get out of this mess. That’s the kind of kind of surprise you’re after.
In our example, then, you’d want to front-load the brother’s sense of wanderlust–perhaps via his frustration with the locals and his workaday jobs. Maybe we could also learn that his sister has a lingering sense of regret about not traveling; maybe she eloped with her husband-to-be the summer she was supposed to travel in Vietnam with friends. Then she was pregnant, and life happened, and she never got to see Asia. And maybe we know the husband doesn’t like his brother-in-law because the husband is a career-oriented, Type-A, level-headed planner, and can’t stand how much partying his wife’s siblings do.
Drama depends on character development.
The characters in this example are three trains on a collision course. Drama is the pleasure of watching them barrel towards each other. Plot is what happens afterward. Really, the most successful plots are character-based ones, where we see an escalating series of collisions–between agendas, fears, desires, and even whole worldviews. Ideally, these collisions get bigger and bigger, all the way to the climax, where finally, the characters’ inertia changes for good.
Final note: Get us to the payoff!
One last thought on writing good drama. Get us to the collision, and then get us to the next, and the next. If you set up a bunch of clues but wait too long to make something happen, your plot will go slack. Worse, the reader will look askance at all of those clues lurking in the margins of the story like creepy little wallflowers. And you’re back to being mysterious again.
Instead, pay attention to the timing of your character development. When you introduce a snippet of backstory, do it with a purpose: it’s a clue. Once you’ve lined up a few of these clues in each character, the reader should see the danger on the horizon. The next few scenes should build up to the next collision. And novel may have many layers of differently sized dangers at work, all of them pointing toward the climax. As long as those collisions occur regularly enough and get bigger each time, the reader will feel certain s/he’s reading a well-structured novel.
This is all second-draft stuff, by the way! It can make the head spin, thinking of how much planning goes into a novel. Just writing the darn thing is half the work–and revision (and a good editor) can help you sort through the jungle and turn chaos into great drama.
If you found this helpful, check out other Project 2015 posts by clicking the tag below, or following me on Twitter (@threepenny) for updates. Thanks for reading!