By Nivi Engineer (Contributor)
You know what I’ve learned from doing a semester of dramatic writing? Good writing is dramatic. Okay, that’s a little simplistic–and very much “duh!”—but having written draft after draft of a play, it became abundantly clear what exactly this meant.
I started with a couple of characters based on reality and put them in what I thought was a dramatic situation, also loosely based on reality. In real life, things were tense, voices were raised, tempers flared, feelings were hurt, and I thought back on this scene and thought “Wow, this would make a good story!” So I wrote a play. But in real life, and in this play, the two main characters were barely out of their teens and did not have a tight grasp on what they wanted in life. They were still figuring that out. But by the end of the play, given the situations they were in, they figured it out and got what they wanted (or didn’t; you’ll have to see the play to find out for sure).
I turned in a draft of the play and moved on to other tasks, proud of what I’d created. I had read it aloud; I had had several people read through it. The dialog was fresh and realistic, the characters distinct. It was good. Except, it wasn’t. In real life, two sisters can drift their way through what they want. In fiction, it simply doesn’t work. My advisor had me step back and interview each of my characters, and ask:
1) What do you want?
2) Why today?
3) What’s standing in your way?
4) What are you willing to do to get what you want?
Once I answered these questions for each of my characters, in their own voices, I revisited my script, and made sure that everything everyone was doing was consistent with their answers to these questions. It upped the urgency, making it absolutely essential that each person get what he/she wants today, now, at this very moment. In real life, yes, patience is a virtue. In fiction, it’s the perfect recipe for someone to walk out of the theater, or to put a book down and give it a bad review on Goodreads or Amazon.
I have heard it said that fiction is not reality, but rather the essence of reality. This is so obvious on stage, where if people don’t know exactly what they want, they just stand and take up space. The same thing happens in fiction, but it’s just so much more obvious when there are actual people standing on stage acting out your words. Everyone needs a reason to be in a scene, or they may as well walk away.
In other words, the biggest lesson I learned from playwriting is that things must happen. Performers are called actors not because they sit and ponder, but because they act. As was succinctly explained to me by Charlie Schulman, Hamlet soliloquized about whether “to be or not to be” not out of indecisiveness, but rather because he had to talk himself into a decision that he was reluctant to make.
If your story seems stagnant, try asking the four questions to each of your characters in each scene. Look at each scene, each chapter, and ask – what is the dramatic question? Each scene of a play must have something happen, the state of someone or something must have shifted from beginning to end. So too in a novel. Something must change. Everyone in a scene wants something, and they must either get it, or, in not getting it, they must change their approach to get it later. And they must try again. Once you have figured out how far your characters will go to get what they want, you know the story will be better if they go that far. So don’t hold back.
Be ruthless. Fiction writers are notoriously kind to their protagonists, much kinder than playwrights. Fiction writers will coddle their characters—shift their turmoil internally, into reflection and acceptance. Playwrights don’t have that luxury. Macbeth did not simply think about killing others, he actually killed and then suffered for it. Picture the scene on stage, how will the scene play out? How could it be more dramatic?
Drama occurs at the point of transition. The moments that readers linger on are the ones in which things change, when fates collide and we know something big is going to happen but we don’t know what.
In the play I was writing, I found that the big decisions kept happening off stage. I would build up a scene, then let the character be alone to ponder and decide, then show up later and reveal the decision and push the action forward. While this may be true in real life, the big dramatic moments are the ones that make characters decide. Characters in stories don’t think back upon past conversations, they act and react based on the situations they are in.
So put them in dramatic situations and force them to act.
Nivi Engineer is the author of The Indian Girl’s Definitive Guide to Staying Single. She earned her BA in English from Case Western Reserve University, an MS in Computer Science from Washington University in St. Louis, and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. She lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with her husband, three sons, and dog.