Monthly Archives: January 2017

Character and dramatic dilemma

What are those key elements of character & dramatic dilemma that really lend themselves to fictional treatment? Not that can be “sort of” worked out to yield a  level of satisfaction that gets a “I’d read more of this.” [“I’d read more of this” is really the lowest form of compliment, far below “what the hell are you waiting for??? Send this to an agent right away!!!”]

The dramatic dilemma needs to be something that can only be worked through and eventually resolved through interactions with others or the outside world. Why is this? Because if the dramatic dilemma is (for example) that a guy has a wonderful but unrecognized talent for drawing, and can find wholeness and redemption and justification for his life through his art, this logically leads in a direction that is less likely to be successful in a fiction treatment. Why? Because you don’t automatically need a lot of interaction with others to be successful at drawing pictures, you only need to sit and do the work, and if the work is good enough, it speaks for itself.

Terry’s line in “Facing the Blank Page” in the archives of the site really struck me: “You want to cross the finish line at the beginning of the race.” That’s like saying “Only place a bet if you’ve got a sure thing.” or “Always trade on a really good inside information.” As he points out, this isn’t when you’ve got some characters and situations that you think can be somehow worked around to sort of work. This is when you feel with “absolute certainty that the fundamental idea . . . is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question.”

To have enough insight and understanding in order to know with “absolute certainty,” it seems to me the writer has to have a feeling for how dramatic structure plays out from scene to scene, from act one to act two to act three. To take a big step toward this understanding, try this: record an episode of “The Good Wife” on your DVR (or find out when “Tootsie” is playing on a cable channel, and record it). Then sit down alone with pen and paper and pay attention and really identify what’s going on. Watch just the first scene, no more than that. Don’t get caught up in it. Roll back and forth in it, understand how each line and gesture contributes. How does this scene make you, the viewer, feel about each of the characters? Does it make you want something on behalf of the characters, and what is that? What is it in the scene that piques your curiosity? What is it that makes you wonder what will happen next? Now go on to the next scene. Does it follow logically from the scene before? Was it foreshadowed? Does it address anything you felt in the scene before? Then ask all the same questions of this scene that you asked of the first one (and maybe some more I haven’t thought of). As you go from scene to scene, notice the inevitability of how one scene requires the next, demands the next, raises questions and feelings in you that can only be addressed by the next; notice how often new and surprising elements are introduced and their effect on you, the viewer. Is it fun to be surprised? How often do (should) surprises come up?

Do this for awhile on any well-structured piece of dramatic fiction and I think you’ll gain a lot of understanding about what it is you need to be trying to do as a novelist. Your job is to create just such an enjoyable experience for your reader, nothing more, nothing less.


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What to make of a repeated phrase

Last November Bobbie asked re my story Waning Tapers about repeated phrases. Here’s the first two paragraphs of the piece:

Emmanuelle gazed from the second-floor window as the sleek automobile — its black flowing lines reminded her somehow of a panther — glided through the driveway’s final curve and braked gently near the portico below. She was pleased that he’d chosen to drive himself.

She wanted to remain there, standing back from the glass so she couldn’t be seen, holding the muslin curtain with the slender ringless fingers of her left hand. She wanted to watch him emerge, wanted to see whether he was as graceful as the car he drove, whether she could detect from his movements if his own lines, his shoulders, his arms, somehow mirrored those of the beautiful machine that had brought him to her door.

The repeat of she wanted in the second para comes from two places: one is musical, like the repeat of a three-note phrase at the beginning of succeeding measures or cadences. Whether or not this makes any sense to you might depend on what kind of music you listen to.

But the impetus to write it that way comes from immersion in the character. The repeat of she wanted conveys the character’s fear of what might portend and a feeling of yearning. These set the mood of the piece.

No one commenting on the piece mentioned the repeat probably because it didn’t bother them or perhaps because they saw it as a technique and not a flaw (guessing).

But all this after the fact analysis is in one way beside the point because the “I” that can analyze this stuff doesn’t know how to actually make any of it happen at the moment I’m writing. For that I have to rely on what I call my “writing mind,” which sometimes offers up what seems to be needed when the need appears, or not, as the case may be.

But now that you know that such things are out there, perhaps your own writing mind will take note (actually it already probably has) and at some point in the future you might find something similar happening to you.

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