Drama comes from making us care

I just finished a novel I should have loved. As I read the climactic scenes I could see how they were supposed to work. A scene brought certain ends dramatically together. A character’s action had poetic parallels. Certain lines of dialogue resonated with the themes and echoed a casual utterance early on. The twist should have been an exquisite emotional ambush. A character was symbolically repeating acts from earlier in the story.

Neat as it was, dramatic as it was – it left me cold.

Because I didn’t care about the characters.

Drama isn’t about intellectual parallels or puzzle solving. Drama works on the heart, not the head.

It’s the same with beginnings. The usual advice to start a story with something attention grabbing can mistakenly be translated into a big bang for its own sake. A car crash, a bomb going off, a chase or a fight. They work much better if we know the people these events are happening to – if they matter to us.

Drama isn’t a bang, it’s a fright, a clench of anxiety. It’s not the event, it’s the feeling. And at the end of a book, the events, parallels, thematic repetitions are simply box-ticking if we’re not bonded to the characters at a closer emotional level.

So I looked back at where I became so detached reading that book. It all hinged around the central romantic relationship.

I didn’t see the relationship matter very much to the narrator. I didn’t see him pin hopes on it, worry about it or indeed react to it in any strong way. I didn’t see what life might be like if it went wrong.

It’s easy for writers to take the reader’s reaction to a relationship for granted. And of course, you don’t want too much hand-wringing or moping, but you do need to remind us, with story sleight of hand, that it’s important.

Also, it’s easy to forget to intrigue us. If the narrator is intrigued by the other character, make us captivated by them too.

Anyway, I came away with a reminder to always ask myself this question. To make my ending work, what do I need the reader to care about?

Thanks for the pic epSOS.de on flickr

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  1. #1 by Nicole Alexander on February 26, 2012 - 9:58 pm

    This post is a great reminder, Roz, and one that I will be passing on to others. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees sometimes when worrying about all of the other details of crafting a good story. You do us all a great service by reminding us that it’s the relationships – not just between characters, but between the reader and the characters – that can make or break a story.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:19 am

      Thanks, Nicole. In fact, I’d say the key relationships in a story (between the characters) are the characters – they need as much attention to development. Not quite what you’re saying but I wanted to get it in 🙂
      Yes, it is often difficult to see these things up close, and that’s why we need several runs at a revision. And we only know in retrospect that it needed doing.

  2. #3 by Sally - aka Saleena on February 26, 2012 - 10:35 pm

    Hi Roz!

    Getting your readers to care about your characters is probably one of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing. I too read a novel recently where I didn’t care about the characters. In this case though, it was because the writer had gone overboard with the drama, forcing it. The protagonist in particular was just plain annoying. She kept losing her temper with people and half the time it didn’t feel justified. I got the distinct feeling the writer was desperate to show the protagonist had emotional depth. But really, she didn’t, which was a shame, because otherwise the story had potential.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:25 am

      Hi Sally!
      That’s an interesting – and not uncommon – problem. Too much drama is melodrama, or sentiment. The reaction is making us shrink away, perhaps because it’s over the top or we don’t think it’s earned or because we don’t feel there’s much else to the character. You’re probably right that the writer was aiming to make the character seem emotional, but did it in a way that was offputting. But that’s an easy mistake to make. It’s best to tread carefully in those situations, and not have the character go into meltdown too readily.

  3. #5 by courseofmirrors on February 26, 2012 - 10:45 pm

    Excellent point. I haven’t got the patience. When characters don’t inspire me I drop the novel. Part of me thinks I should read on if exposition and writing style are elegant and could teach me some tricks, but it’s like eating food that looks appetising though I know after one bite it will upset my stomach.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:26 am

      Ashen, I usually don’t persevere with a book I’m not getting on with. Gone are the days when I struggle on. I did with this, because I did want to see how it ended up – which I must give the writer credit for. And it did inspire me to start with – unfortunately it lost its grip.

      • #7 by courseofmirrors on February 27, 2012 - 10:19 am

        Hmm. The book inspired you to start with. Was it the concept? Can you recall the moment when the story lost its grip on you?

        • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 10:32 am

          Good question. To start with, it was the writing and the situation the character was in. I simply wanted to know what happened, and to read that writer’s prose. But the problem started when the relationship was introduced. It wasn’t the concept but the way it was handled.

          • #9 by courseofmirrors on February 27, 2012 - 1:37 pm

            Makes sense. In relationship, inner or outer, a character becomes visible as a psychological being. Protagonists don’t need to understand their own behaviour, but it’s a writer’s biggest challenge to make behaviour psychologically believable.

  4. #10 by azizagreen on February 26, 2012 - 10:56 pm

    Great discussion point Roz! I think it’s having the balance of a great plot with twists and turns but also well development characters and complexity in their relationships that make the best stories. Leaning too heavily on any one of these elements and ignoring the others can leave a reader feeling like they just bit into a delicious looking cupcake that no one told them was made out of styrofoam.

  5. #12 by Jenny Milchman on February 26, 2012 - 11:02 pm

    I agree. A character you care about can take a story of even small moments and tie it right around your heart. Love your site!

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:27 am

      That’s lovely, Jenny – and so right. Make us care and we’re along for the ride. Oh and thank you!

  6. #14 by robincoyle on February 27, 2012 - 12:52 am

    Ironic that subtle drama has the most impact. I don’t want it forced down my throat but instead, developed through character interactions that make the drama happen. Don’t hit me upside the head. Make me care. Thanks for the great post!

  7. #16 by TheOthers1 on February 27, 2012 - 12:55 am

    It’s always frustrating when the character doesn’t seem to change or grow at all. Unnecessarily cruel male leads turn me off. Everyone else has touched on making characters that people care about (or making the relationships important to the reader) and I agree with that.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:29 am

      That word ‘unnecessary’ says it all. ‘Interestingly’ cruel, ‘compellingly’ cruel… they’d be okay (like The Mayor of Casterbridge or Heathcliff). The problem isn’t the cruelty, it’s how it’s done. Or maybe you’re not as sick as me… 🙂

  8. #18 by kevinonpaper on February 27, 2012 - 4:19 am

    Aka The Night Circus. Come on. Everyone’s been thinking it.

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:31 am

      Hi Kevin! I never got round to reading it, but I remember you and Luke being unimpressed. I thought you probably had good reason…

  9. #20 by Vero on February 27, 2012 - 8:46 am

    Great reminder, Roz. And great blog. 🙂
    I believe it’s when writers focus on craft and structure first, with all their necessary evils, that they forget readers are first and foremost interested in the characters. The protagonist isn’t a fictional creature, he’s a living, breathing person the reader is experiencing the world through, and if that person isn’t invested and involved with every fibre of his being, the reader won’t be either.
    Think of it like this: the protagonist is the reader’s avatar in the story. If you want your reader to experience your story fully, your protagonist must do so first.

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 9:32 am

      Thanks, Vero! And so true – the protagonist is the reader’s avatar. A great story is a great experience.

  10. #22 by yikici on February 27, 2012 - 9:21 am

    Heya Roz, I recently read a post discussing characterisation vs plot-driven novels and how writers use one or the other to drive the story. I, like you, prefer these two to be combined effectively in a good story with characterisation (& relationships) being stronger.

    Having said that, I wonder if some writers do not focus on such relations & character developments because some readers find emotions in books too much to deal with; which is why there’s more focus on the plot than the characters. Just an errant thought. 🙂

    Great post; we always need reminders so we can be better at what we do.

    • #23 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2012 - 10:34 am

      Some readers find emotions too much to deal with? An interesting view. We all have different tolerances, different interests and different priorities. For me, character is plot and vice versa. But I wonder if the focus on plot that you mention happens because when a writer does it well, it looks like it’s only plot? Who knows. Thanks for a provocative comment!

      • #24 by yikici on April 8, 2012 - 3:14 pm

        That could be a possibilty, I’d love to find out if that was the case; some research must be done to figure that out -or more reading and probing peoples thoughts.

        I try and see things from different angles; but it is fascinating how some people struggle with certain levels of emotions in novels and due to that leave them unfinished.

  11. #25 by subtlekate on February 28, 2012 - 1:46 pm

    Great post. Thank you
    Yes I have pushed on with a book when I would have prefered not to and I did learn from it. I didn’t care of the romance between the two because they were so perfect. He was everything a man should be with no flaws. He never set a foot wrong. She was brilliant, achieving all she should and they bored me to sobs. The prose was good, the writing good, the development…..what development? I came away understanding what drama means.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 28, 2012 - 4:19 pm

      What a good example, Kate. Seeing mistakes ‘in the flesh’ like this, and analysing our own reactions to them, is worth a ton of theory.

  12. #27 by Harriet Smart on February 28, 2012 - 8:21 pm

    I would like a big poster, like those “Keep Calm and Carry On” ones, but saying “The characters are the story”. I don’t know who said that first, but I always find it incredibly helpful. If you start with the characters, spend time developing them, dreaming about them, even if you don’t know what is going to happen, you are in a good state of mind to create characters that work and that readers like. Also if you know your people well, you are much less likely to end up creating that faux conflict between lovers that seems to be a problem in some novels!

  13. #29 by Victoria Mixon on February 28, 2012 - 11:59 pm

    Lovely talk about the most important aspect of fiction, Roz! It’s not about whether or not a story matters to its writer or even the characters. It’s about whether or not it matters to the reader.

  14. #31 by Amber Cuadra on March 2, 2012 - 11:40 pm

    Good thoughts! I have to keep reminding myself to ask that question too.

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