Mark Terry

Thursday, January 18, 2007

So The Drama!

January 18, 2007
The title above is from the title of one of the "Kim Possible" movies, unless I've got it wrong. And in case you've never hard of Kim Possible, I feel sorry for you, because Kim and her sidekick Ron Stoppable (and his pet, a naked mole rat) are one of the best cartoons on. Kim is a superhero, when she's not being a great student and cheerleader.

Anyway, I was thinking about this because in the novel I'm working on there are a number of explosions and I just wrote two suicide attacks, one quite dramatic, and the main characters weren't there to witness either of them and I wrote them that way, of them hearing about it afterwards.

This is dumb. I'm writing a novel with multiple points of view, so I really need to go back and write these explosions from the pov of the incidents. Why? Because they're dramatic.

And although there are some fine writers who sometimes cut away from the action for whatever reason (and I can think of a few and they all have to do with what it is you're trying to accomplish), especially in "literary and/or mainstream fiction," I, on the other hand, am writing thrillers.

I've whined about this before, but there's a novel by Jim Harrison that is about a dissipated novelist who goes to the U.P. to write the memoir of a famous engineer who traveled the world building huge projects like dams. The character is now paralyzed from the waist down because he was an epileptic who decided not to take his medicine and use native remedies while working in the Amazon jungle while building a dam. He would rappel down the side of the damn to inspect it, and the last time he did, he had a seizure and fell down the curving side of the dam. But Harrison, for whatever reason, isn't really all that interested in such an exciting, frightening and dramatic event. He's interested in the novelist's growth being exposed to a man like this. Honest to god, I would have preferred the novel about the dam builder.

David Morrell said in an interview once that rather early on he realized that what readers wanted was romance, and by romance he didn't mean kiss-kiss, but romance like knights and quests and adventure and honor and glory. He also notes that this was a little different from the literature he was used to reading as a professor, which was quite intellectual.

Tess Gerritsen recently wrote a couple posts on her wonder blog about writing what you know, and how she teaches a class to doctors who want to be novelists. And one of the things she said really struck home:

I find that aspiring novelists who are highly educated or intensely cerebral have trouble understanding what makes popular culture tick. They’re good at writing elegant phrases that have no emotional content. They think that anything else smacks of melodrama, and good heavens, that’s like watching that horrid Jerry Springer!

Well, imagine this. You’re sitting in Starbucks, and the couple at the table to your left is having a deep discussion about the merits of Proust. And the couple on your right is arguing about the affair that one of them is having. Which couple would you listen to?

There’s a reason Jerry Springer was so popular.

No matter how unusual your occupation, no matter how much you know about quarks and ion propulsion and string theory, if your novel isn’t at heart about people and their conflicts with each other, then it’s not going to hold our attention. Yeah, string theory may be interesting — but how does it affect the lives of John and Jane Doe?

So I think it's not unreasonable as a writer, particularly if you're trying to be a writer of commercial fiction, which is, after all, the entertainment business, that one of the questions you need to ask yourself when you choose your heroes and your points of view and many other questions is quite simple:

Where's the drama?

Find it and you're on your way.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think that writers (as writers)are interesting only to themselves and other writers. I'd have preferred to hear about the dam builder too.

One of the problems in writing a conventional mystery is that the most dramatic events have already happened. Whatever drove the killer to murder and the murder itself are in the past. Often writers throw in new murders or have someone trying to stop the detective's investigation, to add some action but still, the real climax of the story has already passed by the time the investigation begins.

What I've seen done, and what we've tried to do in the new mystery, is to write the sections where people are telling the detective about past events like first person narrative, thus, in efect, we hope, actualy showing the events but while still remaining true to the investigative structure of the classic detective novel.

I think readers are less concerned about niceties of structure than just seeing things. For example -- I don't know if you would agree-- I would prefer, rather than hearing about an explosion, to introduce a night watchman, who never appears again, to witness it.

Is that workable, to bring in a character simply as a witness to one event? I'm not sure if we've ever tried that.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, yes, actually. That's exactly what I'm doing in these books. I did it earlier, in which a homeless guy discovers a bomb and accidentally sets it off, and I'm very pleased with that chapter.

Of course, if you're writing a first-person narrative, you've got some headaches, although some fine writers have solved this issue quite creatively without necessarily jumping to a third-person section.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

Best advice I ever got about writing came from my grandfather. "Get the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair."

Deceptively simple, no?

1:53 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I don't think we're related, but that was the best advice I ever had, too. Of course, unless your grandfather was John D. MacDonald or Stephen King, the person giving me the advice probably wasn't related to you, either.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

"They think that anything else smacks of melodrama"

So true. So tiresome.

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