So this post kind of springs off of one I wrote a few days ago about conflict. Not long ago when I actually started researching tips about writing I came across a common piece of advice, which I like to call, “Amp up the drama!” It boils down to this: Find a scene dull? Pour in tension. Ask yourself how the situation could be worse. Throw in miscommunication, bad weather, terrible timing, etc.
Now, as a reader I had already picked up on this. There are so many times when I recognized, “That was the worst possible moment he could have asked her that question.” Or think about the scene from “The Princess Diaries,” where Mia runs away, her car breaks down, it starts pouring rain, and her convertible top won’t go up. I’m surprised they didn’t have her slip and sprain her ankle. The audience isn’t dumb. They can usually tell when their emotions are being strung along.
And that’s kind of the problem I have with this advice. I understand the value of tension and difficult situations. They often show a different side to your character and they keep the reader interested. But if your book is made up entirely of super dramatic, unlikely situations then I personally feel that it loses a bit of substance. Sure, it’s a thrill to read–and these types of books are often the ones that keep you up all night on an adrenaline rush.
The books that stick with me and become my favorites are often “quieter.” Sure they have good conflict dashed in there, with a couple of wonderfully crafted dramatic scenes too. The difference is the bulk of story surrounding these moments. Usually, there are people that I can relate to who are facing relatable situations in life. I recently read “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte after my sister recommended it. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I really did (although I can’t say it made it to my favorites list). Lucy is a quiet, ordinary character. I very much related to her thoughts and feelings as she traveled abroad as a single woman for the first time. She goes to France and manages to get a job as a nanny. Eventually she is given the opportunity to teach English. Although there are definitely some dramatic and unusual scenes in the book, the majority of it describes the day to day life at a girls boarding school. The driving force of the book is the characterization.
So basically, yes, you can write a flashy, dramatic piece and it might sell well. But there is this extra element-I’m not sure what to call it-that turns the ordinary into beautiful. Those books stay with me because I feel like I can integrate them into my life, and I can have a place in their world. They become friends. There’s enough drama in life. Just spend an hour with a group of teenage girls. Life is so very much deeper than pomp and flash. I’m not going to lie, though, and say that I have never used pomp and flash to move my stories along. I have. And I think it’s been a good step for me as an author to understand how plot and character moves along. But I am striving to be better.