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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