Caveat: this may not be what you learned in your MFA program or from your writing instructor, but writing is about looking at a variety of methods and finding what fits your style. My approach is one to consider, and one that has worked for me in writing the romantic mysteries that enabled me to quit my day job. I hope considering it is useful to you in your journey. ~ Pamela
Once upon a time, a guy I dated in college told me I was addicted to drama.
Who, me? Gasp, snort, cough.
Maybe he was right. Not the two-girls-fighting-over-a-baby-daddy type of drama. Not the hater-trolls leaving stark raving mad comments on HuffPost drama. But the kind of drama in everyday life that keeps your blood flowing. I’ve always enjoyed re-imagining life, complete with amped-up emotion and breath taking tension. In fact, that’s really all I do when I write: I re-imagine life, only better. More dramatic. More suspenseful. More awesome. I don’t need alternate universes or mythical beings. I just want to tweak what I’ve already got for more tension and, yes, drama.
I think there are a lot of people like me. Case in point: ten years ago, my then-41-year-old husband was cast in a commercial for a women’s drug. I recall it was something to do with urological issues. Anyway, his job was to frolic on the beach, shirtless, in a bathing suit, with a woman and two children. The pharmaceutical company was marketing to women, and their ploy was this: Honey, you may have some really embarrassing issues down there, but if you take our drug your husband will suddenly become better looking and your children, too. Because that’s how they cast this commercial: a slightly more attractive than average woman who had married WAY UP in the looks department, and two exceptionally perfect young kids. Said husband and kids younger than the ones she had in real life. (And this is every beer commercial from the 1980s, from the male point of view.)
Was it possible that this woman could have the husband and kids in that commercial. Yes. Was it likely? No, but she sure would like to imagine them that way. That, my friends, is life re-imaginined. It’s what we’ve got, only a little bit more exciting. [Note to husband: see, I don’t have to re-imagine, because I got the guy in the commercial, honey. Love you. Mwah.]
I write mysteries and the occasional nonfiction book. Stylistically, people describe my mysteries as heartfelt, fast-paced, tense and highly suspenseful, and high in drama without being overly dramatic. I like these descriptions. I am actually trying to write in a way that achieves these elements. I am trying to capture life the way we want to re-imaginine it.
Creating drama without being overly dramatic requires courage with a delicate touch. The courage to go deep with a character, to let your characterization “all hang out.” To put pressure on your protagonist in every element of his or her life. The pressure that you create has to be something that your readers will find compelling, and your character’s reactions to this pressure have to be believable within their characters, although they can “go big” within those confines. (Melodrama occurs when they act outside the boundaries of character. We don’t want that. That’s not a delicate touch.) In my humble opinion, many readers like characters they can relate to, but most of them want those characters’ trials and tribulations to be just a little bit worse than what we will ever go through in real-life. Many readers want those characters to act/react the way the reader wants to act/react, but can’t. Most of us are seeking peace, joy, and love in our personal lives. If the story/plot centers around events that are just like our everyday lives (peaceful, joyful, and loving), they will be boring.
I mean, really, who wants to read about every day life? Well, some people do, but they’re not my readers. Or at least they’re not readers of my fiction. [They would enjoy my nonfiction, however, and I encourage them to do so. :-)]
In any given situation, I want the events to be possible, yet strain the bounds of credulity, then strain them even further with my character’s reactions/actions. The “big” events in the book need to be unlikely, they need to be the most improbable culmination of events. Like the woman in that commercial taking a pill and suddenly having a younger and better looking husband (and disposing of the old one’s body with nobody the wiser, I guess???).
Let me give you some examples.
In my novel, Heaven to Betsy, my protagonist is pregnant. It’s a tubal pregnancy and ends in miscarriage. The character had lost a fallopian tube to a benign tumor earlier in her life. The tube in which her pregnancy has now occurred is her one remaining fallopian tube. While it doesn’t usually happen in real life (but it’s possible), she ends up hemorrhaging when she miscarries and most of the rest of that one remaining fallopian tube must be removed, rendering her unlikely to have children in the future. As a result, she’s depressed and self-destructive. Her husband has left her, following in the footsteps of her father who left her in her early 20s, and now the potential of having children has left her, too. She doesn’t really care if she lives her dies. So her reactions are big, but within believability for her character: She self medicates with alcohol and Vicodin. (Which is not recommended by doctors, so don’t try that at home, kids, but it’s how she feels, so it’s how she acts.) After a couple days in bed, she ignores her doctor’s advice and flies to New Mexico where she attends a work party with her boss. Desperate circumstances force her to ride a horse for hours that night. Remember, this is a mystery, which means bad things happen.
Is this what most people do after having part of a fallopian tube removed? No, it is not. Is it possible? Why, yes, yes it is, at least according to the medical expert I consulted when I wrote the book. He said she could be up and about, and she could ride that horse, but she’d really hurt the next day. Some of my readers have probably experienced miscarriage and some of them have had laparoscopic removal of their fallopian tubes. I sincerely hope they didn’t ride a horse all night three days after surgery, but medically, most of them could have, if they had to. If their life or the life of someone they cared about was on the line.
Drama. Using that which is implausible or improbable but still possible, and more exciting than real life, with believable yet “big” character reactions.
One more example from Heaven to Betsy: on the same night my character takes her ill-advised horse ride, she needs to enter a plane on a dirt runway, to escape the bad guys, who are shooting at her. The plane is already running; in fact, it’s moving. It’s a Cessna 182, known as a Skyhawk, which is a single-engine plane with the propeller on its nose. It’s not advisable to enter the plane while the propeller’s running, for a variety of reasons. One is that a spinning propeller is nearly invisible. Recently, a Dallas woman was permanently disfigured because she accidentally walked into a moving propeller. Another is that propellers can come off. This is how my father-in-law lost a leg and eye. So I know that bad things can happen with moving propellers. It’s also possible to enter a Skyhawk by approaching it wide from the rear while the propeller is running, at least according to the aviation expert I consulted when writing the book. So that’s what my character does, which is “going big” but within the bounds of believability for her characterization, because otherwise she and someone she loves are going to die.
Is this the recommended way to enter a plane? Does it follow safety guidelines and procedures? No and no. But I don’t write books about every day safety procedures. I’m looking for drama without melodrama, I’m looking for possible even if improbable.
Would Heaven to Betsy have the same impact if my character hadn’t had a medical condition that made it really hard for her to do things she had to do in the most exciting, most desperate scenes of the book? Would her escape have been as dramatic if she simply walked up to a plane that was turned off, entered it, and then the pilot went through his safety checklist before turning it on, instead of leaping in under a hail of bullets? I don’t think so. We need the stakes to be high for the tension to be high.
Show us who your character is way down deep inside so we’ll know why every punch you throw at her hurts, then put every obstacle you can in her way, and, finally, go for the unlikely-but-possible instead of the humdrum-everyday as you ramp up your plot tension, all the time staying within the bounds of believability for the character you created, even as she acts/reacts “bigger” than most of us would have the luxury of doing in real life. p.s. There’s a lot of potential for humor when you write this way, as well, if you care to develop it.
Yes, you could stick with the most likely and the most safe. I could, too. But that’s not the book that I want to write. I want to write the book that reviewers say creates tension and drama without being overly dramatic.
How about you?
Pamela Fagan Hutchins, winner of the 2017 Silver Falchion award for Best Mystery (Fighting for Anna), writes overly long e-mails, hilarious nonfiction (What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too?), and series mysteries, like those in her What Doesn’t Kill You world, which includes the bestselling Saving Grace and the 2015 and 2016 WINNERS of the USA Best Book Award for Cross Genre Fiction, Heaven to Betsy and Hell to Pay. You can snag her newest release, Bombshell, if you’ve already run the rest of the table. She teaches writing, publishing, and promotion at the SkipJack Publishing Online School (where you can take How to Sell a Ton of Books, FREE) and writes about it here on the SkipJack Publishing blog.
Pamela resides deep in the heart of Nowheresville, Texas and in the frozen north of Snowheresville, Wyoming. She has a passion for great writing and smart authorpreneurship as well as long hikes and trail rides with her hunky husband, giant horses, and pack of rescue dogs, donkeys, and goats. She also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound (if she gets a good running start).