You’re likely getting a tad tired of me writing about Donald Maass and his Writing 21st Century Fiction, but it’s the writer’s guide I’m studying right now, so . . . well, deal with it. Besides, if you read it yourself, you’d understand why I’m so enthusiastic.
Anyway, he says something on page 120 that I have been trying to get across to my clients for quite some time:
“The problem with most character-driven manuscripts is not that they go over the top, but that they aim too low. They underwhelm. Events are not dramatic enough. Surprise and delight are in short supply because the author is too polite, restrained, style-conscious, or afraid to incite a riot.”
The line I really want to focus on is “events are not dramatic enough.” I can think of two reasons for this: (1) while we write, we are so focused on the action that we forget how the action affects the character, and (2) we are so terrified of that fine line between drama and melodrama that we’re afraid to cross it.
We need to fix this.
- Amp up your action scene
The easiest way to amp your action is to show it affecting your character emotionally. If you’re doing your characterization right to begin with, you’re already thinking of your hero as a living human being, so climb into that person’s head and under his skin and show your readers how the character is reacting to the event you’ve set him in.
Pick a scene. Does it read like a laundry list of things your POV character is doing? He does this, then he does that—for whatever reasons you’ve designed in your head for him to do them. Why is he dancing to your tune? What’s at stake for him? If you were doing exactly what he is doing right this minute, given all the circumstances you’ve created for him, how would you feel? What would you think? What would you worry about?
While he is doing what he does, let us into his mind—what is he thinking? Into his heart—which emotion is he feeling? Into his body—what physical reaction is he having to the situation you’ve put him in?
Show us that.
Sometimes our thoughts contradict our emotions—our heads are at war with our hearts. That’s called conflict, which amps the tension, which is a good thing. Emotions are illustrated through sweaty palms and cold shivers. Throw all that together—mind, heart, and body—and toss them into the action mix, and you’ve amped the tension. You’ve made your action scene dramatic.
I’m not talking long, drawn-out passages. Sometimes only a few words are necessary to transport the reader from being a fly on the wall, watching all the action, to being an intimate participant in the story with as much at stake in the outcome as the character has. And that’s what you want. When your reader feels she has a stake in the outcome, she’ll want to see what the outcome is.
- Amp up the drama
This is going to make you crazy, because we sometimes have a problem measuring how much is too much. We’re so afraid of becoming melodramatic that we shy away from the dramatic entirely. So let me give you permission to howl. Wail. Throw things. Stomp your foot. Dance in the rain. Smile too big, too bright, too often.
Just as I wrote in the segment above, climb into your character’s heart and mind and show us what’s going on inside. Magnify it. Blow it out of proportion. Break every rule that limits you—every single thing that would make your editor or critique partners write nasty notes, do it.
Start at the extreme, then dial back.
Read over whatever you’ve written and delete the obvious terminology for the emotion you’re aiming for. Then delete clichéd actions related to those terms. Use these tools: Simile, Metaphor, Symbolism, Hyperbole, High-impact Nouns and Verbs, Sentence Structure and Punctuation.
Emotion is best illustrated, more memorable, when it is finessed, but finesse doesn’t mean minimized. Learn to go big using the tools of finesse I listed above.
If you’re not sure of your results, send the passage off to your critique partner for feedback and, if necessary, adjust accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to strum your readers’ heartstrings. That’s one of the reasons they read.