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Where Real Drama Comes From

photo by Matthias Weinberger via flickr
photo by Matthias Weinberger via flickr

No one likes a drama queen. We all have ‘em in our lives — that person who’s forever casting tiny things as great big problems, and getting everyone riled up over what turns out to be a bucket of nothing. They can be fun to watch for a bit, but they’re ultimately exhausting. It doesn’t take long to realize that those “great big problems” of theirs have no real consequence, which means that they aren’t problems at all.

Real drama is something else altogether. And – here’s the surprising thing – real drama very often has little to do with big, externally dramatic events – real or imagined. Real drama is internal, and that is the kind of drama that stories are about.

Think of real drama as the internal struggle that the plot catapults your protagonist into, forcing her to take action whether she wants to or not. If taking that action doesn’t cost your protagonist dearly on a deep emotional level, then it’s not a problem. Nor is it a story. Even if, on the surface, something big happens.

For instance, your protagonist might expect a completely normal day, and instead meets the love of her life at the bus stop, forever changing the course of her life in every way. Sounds huge, doesn’t it? But unless it mucks up something just as important to her, or unless there’s something she now has to overcome in order commit to her new found beloved, who cares? There’s a reason why stories never begin with “and they lived happily ever after.” Without internal conflict – without something crucial at stake — we not only can’t learn anything from her, we’re not really interested.

It’s a simple equation: No problem, no clear-cut impending consequence that will cost the protagonist big time, no story. It’s something everyone tends to get in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to pull off. Which is why writers often come up with a general struggle for their protagonist – a struggle anyone would have, given the situation – with a general consequence to boot.

For instance: imagine that your protagonist is a woman who, she’d be the first to admit (in great detail over a glass or two of wine, if you have a moment), has unresolved issues with her old college boyfriend. She knows he’s gone, but she can’t quite forget him, heaven knows she’s tried. Still, she’s done okay for herself. She has a good job, a nice apartment, and a very cute pooch that she can count on. All is good. Until she opens the door to walk Fido before heading off to work, and there stands her old boyfriend, looking sheepish. Their eyes lock and he says, “I think I made a big mistake. We need to talk.” Wow. Definitely breaks a pattern, which is good. Definitely not what she expected, which is good. Definitely spurs inner conflict, which is good. All the makings of riveting drama seem to be here.

But dig a little deeper and we unearth the problem of the general. What’s at stake, exactly? What might be the consequence, the fallout, of this encounter? That she’s late for work, or maybe even calls in sick? And so? Would that matter? Who knows? While in real life, your heart would be wildly pounding at a moment like this, in a story, it feels a tad tepid. As a reader, would you be curious about what happens next? How could you be, when you don’t know what the options are, or, more importantly, what is at stake for these people. Close your eyes. Can you picture anything? You know, other than the two of them standing there in the doorway and maybe the dog yanking on the leash?

Without a rapidly approaching specific consequence, your protagonist can kick back, relax, and decide to deal with it all later. Our gal, above, could agree to talk to her old boyfriend while she walks the dog, decide to meet him for lunch, offer to make him his favorite meatballs and spaghetti on Saturday night. Trouble is, your reader isn’t going to sit around for page after page waiting for her to decide. Without something forcing her to take action, there’s no reason to care and nothing to root for.

So let’s start with the same scenario, but in this version our protagonist has worked hard to put her old boyfriend behind her. She’s made a new life for herself. She’s CEO of her own startup, and she’s madly in love with the CEO of another. They’re the talk of the town, tech-wise, and they’re getting married tomorrow. In fact, in an hour his driver is scheduled to pick her up and take her to the airport, where his private jet will fly her to Rio where the wedding party is already gathering (geez, these aren’t very energy conscious people, are they?). Anyway, she hears a knock, and thinking the driver is early, flings open the door to find…her old college boyfriend. The one she’s never been able to quite forget, despite the great new guy she’s about to marry. Their eyes lock. He looks panicked, sheepish, and then, determined. “I think I made a big mistake,” he says, “we have to talk!” Wow again, but it’s very different this time, because we know what’s at stake.

You can see the shape of the story. You can feel this woman’s struggle, and instantly begin imagining the possible consequences. This time the reader’s heart might be pounding a little bit, too. They’re curious. They want to know will happen. Will she invite him in? (Oh, of course she will.) Then kick him out? Ask him to ride with her to the airport? And what about the groom? Will she let him know? Confess her confusion? Call off the wedding? As you can see, the reader isn’t simply interested in what will happen now, they’re also dying to find out how it will impact the protagonist’s future (hey, maybe she’ll decided not to go to Rio, thus reducing her carbon footprint, you never know!).

Not only can you begin to anticipate what this woman might lose should she opt to ditch the startup guy for her old college boyfriend, you know that she hasn’t much time to decide, either. Pretty breathless! Especially since there’s nothing like a rapidly approaching deadline to focus the mind and spur action that we might not otherwise take. Point being: there’s a lot at stake here for the protagonist, and that’s exactly where genuine drama comes from – unavoidable, escalating internal conflict.

And make no mistake, that internal drama must be apparent from very first page. That means you must be sure that the opening salvo of your novel is just the tip of an iceberg guaranteed to command your protagonist’s attention for a good long while, rather than a single, melting ice cube that she might slip on, then get up, dust herself off and walk away unscathed. For good or for ill, that first salvo must scathe her.

But while what happens on there on the first page must be a big deal, that doesn’t mean it must be an external big deal, as in a birth, death or call from the IRS. It simply means it’s a big deal as far as your protagonist is concerned — provided, of course, she’s not a drama queen.

What about your novel — or even the novel you’re reading now — what is at stake for the protagonist right there on the first page?

About Lisa Cron [1]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [2] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [3] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [4]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [5] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [6]