Welcome back readers, to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Written via time travel … technically. As I am still in Alaska, this post was written and scheduled in advance, so I won’t see your comments until I return. That said, thanks to the magic of technology I can still deliver Being a Better Writer to you despite being—peers ahead—currently finish off another longline set.
So, with no news, there’s little for me to do but dive right in. So I’ll start by asking the question posed in the very title: how much drama is too much?
The prompt for this question came from a story I was reading a few weeks ago, in which two characters who were getting pretty close suddenly and out of nowhere had a massive moment of shared agonizing over holding one another’s hand. And I don’t mean “It became a big deal.” I mean “It became a big deal,” to the degree that everything else that had been going on in the story stopped dead while these two characters agonized over it.
Now, I’m not saying that someone agonizing over whether or not to reach for someone’s hand is a bad thing. Or an improbable one. Or even one that doesn’t bring the world to a halt for the duo involved. But as storytellers, we not only need to consider all of those things but as well everything around that moment or event. In this case, the story had not to this point had such a moment of drama. In fact, things had been quite the opposite, with the characters being very relaxed and at ease with one another. Again, not to say that there aren’t moments of transition from ease to panic in real-life relationships, but what happened here was less a transition and more a leap off a cliff. Or maybe up it, and the audience was left at the bottom. Not only was it quite sudden and out of the character we’d seen so far, but it also brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt, everything going on hold for a long segment of panic. Pacing? It was dead by the time that sequence was halfway over.
Which got me thinking, and led to me adding this topic to the list. How much drama is too much drama?
Because again, make no mistake about it. Drama itself isn’t bad. Even the most simple story of action and daring do often has an element or two of drama to it between characters or forces. You could almost say that if we come to see the action, the drama is what gives the action weight.
But too much drama for our story can give it too much weight … Weight that can drag the story and the audience down and bury it in tedium. We can make a section of our story too heavy for our audience to want to bear. And if we’ve done that, well … then we’ve failed to deliver to our audience a story that they want to read.
However, this isn’t just as simple as “pick an audience and deliver to it” because while there is an audience for say, the extreme hand-holding freakout of the story that prompted this post, the issue there isn’t as simple as “find that audience” because the rest of the story before that point wouldn’t have attracted them, but put them off. And even if there had been a reading audience that was fine with both approaches to drama, the sudden tonal shift would have put them off just as well.
Okay, so let’s step back for a moment before we dive to deep and get bogged down. Again, I wish to reiterate that there isn’t a problem with having drama in a story. Drama, be it from deeply interpersonal character relationships and development or lots of hand-wringing about hand-holding, is a part of any story. We can be shallow with it, or we can be deep with it.
But it’s not advisable to try and be both with it.
See, in doing what this story I read had done, they’d inadvertently created several additional problems atop the issue of audience. The first and most apparent one, which I touched on above, was that they’d given their story inconsistent pacing problems. The story and everything that was going on around it stopped dead when the hand-holding scene started. It really was a cliff. All advancement and progress that had been going on around the story stopped. Worse, there was other stuff going on leading into this, by which I mean things like death and murder. Peril. The resultant scene then, felt a bit like a roller coaster that had just done its first few loops stopping cold for the park to give the riders a lecture about safety that was supposed to be part of the ride and enjoyed?
It was a wall where the pacing was concerned. Not just a short break, it was a full stop.
Additionally, the dichotomy between what had been going on and what the pacing stopped for (the hand-holding) also came across as a sudden bit of tonal whiplash. Peril! Danger! Murder! Giggling and hand-holding? Wait, what? Okay, back to peril! Leaving the audience going “Huh?”
Lastly, there was one other major issue with this development that I’ll single out for negatively affecting the story: It was also inconsistent with what we (the audience) had seen from the characters so far. Thus far through the story of peril, murder, and danger, they’d been quick, confident, and utterly at ease with one another. And yes, I know that for some people, that can change when they start to make that mental flip from “friends” to “something more.” But in this story, there was no “start.” The characters went from confident and on top of things to complete shutdown in a single instant.
In other words, what suddenly occurred was also completely at odds with the establishment of the characters, their behavior, and their actions thus far in the story. It really was as if the two characters had been replaced suddenly with dopplegangers that hadn’t peeked at the script and thought they were in a different genre.
Again, all for a bit of drama over hand-holding.
All right, so why the breakdown of this? Well, because this is a blog about improving writing. And it’s very likely that the creator of that scene knew that it felt “off” but either excused it or accepted it because they though “Well, this won’t be that bad. People like drama.” Because in fairness, this sort of rationality does happen quite a lot. Especially with young writers, who may want to include “elements” of their favorite shows or scenes.
But the truth is that it is that bad. There are a lot of issues that come with suddenly shoving some sort of drama drop like that into a narrative that wasn’t prepared or even built for it. To use another analogy, it’s a bit like dropping a two-ton concrete block onto a bridge that was never built to handle it. It smashes right through a number of other supportive elements, and rips the story in half, the audience stuck on one side of the broken bridge.
The neat thing about the analogy though, is that one can build a bridge that can take the weight of the drama bomb. It’s feasible to construct the elements that gave way in such a way as to support the scene, rather than give way beneath it.
Take our example for instance. The story I read that kicked this whole post off. What if the author had properly supported the scene of hand-holding. How could they have done that?
Well, they could have removed the character inconsistency with the scene by offering earlier hints of the two being unsure around one another when the idea of being more than a duo came up. Sands, it could have also made them a little less hypercompetent as they went through the danger and peril together, which would have given their sudden moment of no confidence and panic a bit more familiarity as there would have been hints of it before.
This also would have helped with the inconsistency of the tone as well by shoring up that particular shift with prior instances of the story hinting at what was to come in the story, rather than a story that had entirely been death and peril doing a complete about face to something with no introduction. Sprinkling in bits and moments that let the reader know that this sort of romantic uncertainty is going to be part of what happens would have established that the drama would have been part of things early, and then prepared the audience mentally for their arrival.
Lastly, they could have placed said scene in a better position so the pacing of the story wasn’t completely interrupted. And look, I’m going to be harsh here for a moment and strike at a root cause of a lot of this: I know Anime doesn’t care about pacing. Anime will simply stop a crucial fight dead, mid-frame, to spend three episodes on a “tearful,” drama-bomb flashback that’s supposed to make you feel bad for the big villain in the expensive-to-animate fight the show creators are trying to spread their funding out over several episodes to stay under budget.
It’s bad pacing. Period. Anime gets away with it simply by virtue of refusing to do any different to the point where their audience will defend it as “Well that’s just anime.” And you know what? That’s fine.
But do not take that and attempt to shoehorn it into another storytelling medium. Anime has bad pacing due to budget limitations to the degree that it’s become “part of the charm” for the audience. But other forms of storytelling do not have that limitation. Books and stories can afford to spend the time to properly divvy out the pace of their scenes, and therefore should.
If you’re wondering, I bring this up because I’ve seen a lot of young writers try to justify truly awful pacing and storytelling decisions by saying “Well [insert anime here] did it …” No. Bad. Moving on!
Sticking this sudden, overly-long bit of hand-holding debate in the middle of a critical moment of action and peril was terrible pacing, and far from the proper moment to do so. Sands, cult-film Megamind made fun of this sort of poor pacing when during its finale, one protagonist brings up their breakup with the other, intending for it to be a clue the villain won’t understand toward how to defeat him. At which point the other protagonist, locked in a fight with that same villain simply shouts ‘Really? You want to do this now!?’
Genre plays into this pacing as well. In Megamind it works because the film hangs a lampshade on what the one character is thinking is going on, making the audience laugh, which for a comedy film is fine! Had the story the hand-holding debate happened in been comedic in any way prior, the scene could have been played off to be laughed at for its sheer ridiculousness as the two characters go catatonic in complete ignorance of what was happening around them.
But none of those things were true for it. Instead, a scene of peril and action, the standard for the story thus far, screeched to a halt for the scene about the hand-holding, then jumped right back into the peril as if nothing had happened. This can be done properly, if you plan ahead and account for the pacing of “giving some readers time to breath.” It just wasn’t here, and the scene felt very out of place.
With all this said then, what should we as writers keep in mind when we set out to include drama in our stories. Again, drama itself is not bad. In fact, even the most basic and lighthearted of stories tend to have a little drama in them. As I stated in the opening, drama is the weight that makes the action matter.
But we can’t just shove it in. We need to tailor it alongside the rest of our story. First, we need to consider both the genre of our story and what sort of audience we’re trying to appeal to. How much drama is appropriate for the audience you’re attempting to woo? How much drama is the genre known for including?
You know, while we’re at it, what kind of drama is it as well? The drama of the pulp adventures Raiders of the Lost Ark or Pirates of the Caribbean are very different from the drama of a rom-com or a film like Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Each of these approaches what kind of drama and weight they give the audience based on their genre. When considering drama to place in our story, consider what sort of dramatic subplot or events would work well with the genre of the story we’re telling (and yes, this does go back to the old joke of “romance can be shoved anywhere”).
Once we’ve made a decision on the genre and what our audience expects, also keep in mind our tone and our consistency. Again, part of what made the mentioned story fail so abruptly was that the sudden inclusion of the drama failed to be consistent with the tone thus far of the story. If you want to have a romance, then you need to make sure that we lay the groundwork early on so that such a thing feels correct into the context of the story. It needs to match up to what’s already been there in our text.
Lastly, when the moment comes for us to embrace this drama and deliver it to our audience, we need to do so in a moment that’s paced properly with regards to the rest of the plot. Interrupting and putting a big action scene on hold to have a heart-to-heart? Not great. But finding a “quiet” moment after the big action scene for the characters to have a talk about things?. Much better paced.
In fact, when we discussed The Convenient Romantic Subplot we touched on this, talking about one of the flaws of the “romantic plot tumor” being that tended to completely upend pacing in favor of sudden whirlwind romance that didn’t fit with what was going on in the rest of the film. But setting aside romantic drama, any time we want our characters to delve into emotions, goals, or other aspects of drama, interpersonal or otherwise, we should make sure that it’s the right moment for it. And I can think of two good litmus tests for this sort of scenario. When delving into drama, we should ask “Is this a moment where this would really happen?” This question begs us to look at both our characters (because some are more willing to discuss deep dramatic things in moments others are not) as well as the rest of the circumstances around them (because that exploding dam probably isn’t going to freeze in time while those two antagonists work out their feelings or deep-rooted phobias … and I say probably because there are settings in which such a moment can happen), which include the audience who may want to see the big boom more than a stop or detour.
Basically, recall how Megamind made a joke out of ‘You want to do this now!?’ and apply that logic to your pacing. Is it the moment for it? Or is your audience going to ask the same question that the characters aren’t and become tempted to start skipping ahead?
Okay, so to conclude, I want to reiterate that drama isn’t bad. And in answer to the question that was poised by the title of this post, well … There really isn’t any limit to “how much drama is too much?” if the story is built for it.
And that’s what the real question is. Not “Do I have too much drama for a story” but rather, “Do I have too much drama for this story?” What sort of framework have you built to support it? What do the pillars of “genre” and “audience” support? What sort of additional reinforcement have you given the “bridge” of your story with tone and consistency?
Because if we’ve taken the time and care to make sure that our story can support the weight of the drama we wish to place upon it, then that weight can be as light or heavy as we want it, because the story supports it. Our readers, our audience, will journey through it like they would walk across a bridge, with the weight of that drama fully supported so that they can reach the other side.
So our drama can be what we want it to be … as long as we put in the support for it. So go out there and look at the support in your story. Build it to support the drama you (and your audience) desire.
Good luck. Now get writing.
Being a Better Writer is provided free of charge and exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:
Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!
Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!
If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!
Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!