Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Dramatic Do I Need To Be?

In my current work in progress I'm still exploring the tone of the story, and in doing that I've been circling around in my mind, wondering if I have enough dramatic tension in the story, probably because I'm still exploring the characters themselves. The books I reach for first myself have what I've always thought of as a level of personal intensity and drama in the protagonist’s interactions rather than, or as well as, in the action, and I don't think that's coming through in my current ms. My reading experience tells me the level will be different if I pick up a romantic suspense versus a sweet romance versus a hot category, but how do I get to where I want to be with my story? I’ve wondered if it’s simply a function of the conflict between the characters, in which case should I just get to know them better and wait for the level of dramatic tension to determine itself in conjunction with the story as it appears? Or is it something I should be planning for consciously from the start and keeping in mind as I write so my muse (sub-conscious, write-brain, what-have-you) will produce accordingly?

Just to see what's out there on the net (I'm trying to practice my surfing skills, or more accurately, develop some), I Googled "dramatic and tension". [You know (and I'm sure most of you do know), a body could get lost for days following the pages that came up.] I checked out a few results, and though I came across a couple of sites I'll go back to for general info, I wasn't any further ahead than when I started. Also, it wasn't quite what came across in the discussions I read on MacBeth, Checkov, or The Terminator.

I decided I'd better refine what I meant by dramatic tension before I searched further. I went back to my dinosaur ways and pulled out a dictionary and a few books. The dictionary got me started with drama: noun – a series of striking actions or events, like those in a play. Then dramatic: adjective - vivid, intense. And finally tension: noun - the act or process of stretching something tight, the condition of so being stretched, tautness. Well, dramatic and tension fit with what I want to achieve, and I can consider plot as another word for drama, but I wasn't any further ahead in figuring out why I wasn’t feeling confident that I’m getting them in my story. The how-to texts I had didn’t get me on track so I “surfed” my bookshelves again and came up with Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Seemed to me that if I could pin down what appeals to me when I read I might have a better idea of what’s missing in my story, and obviously something is or I wouldn’t be circling instead of moving forward.

I’ve read each of the essays included in the book before, of course, but not for some time, so I went back to two written by authors who write with an intensity I enjoy, Elizabeth Lowell and Robyn Donald. I don’t think I have a definitive answer yet, but I do have more to muse on, as it were, while I’m working through this. Lowell says “...in romance novels alone, love between a man and a woman is affirmed as an immensely powerful constructive force in human life.” She says, however, that “Sweetness and light is wonderful in life and deadly in drama.”, and goes on to note that with “heaven foreordained” the intensity a romance reader takes comes from the journey itself with “the formidable hero who puts the heroine at risk of losing her future and herself to a man who does not believe in love.”

Okay, that resonates with me, as does the essay from Robyn Donald. Donald writes about the “mean, moody and magnificent “ hero. Her essay discusses our historic past and the benefits of having a mate that provide and protect his mate and children. She relates that to why women who are happily married to men who don’t resemble the typical romance genre’s Alpha males as a function of what she refers to as the “seductive fantasy at the core of all romantic fiction”, i.e. the powerful male needs the female and “comes to realize that the only thing that will satisfy him is her admission of love for him, her equal commitment to a shared life.”

Both Lowell and Donald elaborate on those comments, of course, and they were writing on specific aspects of the appeal of romance, i.e. the warrior hero and the affirmation of love, and the hero in romance literature, respectively. And neither essay intimates that the heroine needs a man to feel complete, just the opposite. But after reading their comments I realized that at least some of my current unease with the ms is because in my hero isn’t acting consistently as either an Alpha or a Beta male—he’s a mix. Now, I don’t think every hero has to be a warrior type, or completely self-confident and in charge of his world. But maybe I have to make up my mind, or more to the point, learn which characteristics are predominant in him before I can feel confident that the tension is there. (Have I come full circle here, as it were, from my question at the beginning?) I’m reminded of advice I read some years ago on writing short stories: choose one trait that is strong in each story character and always keep that in mind as you write. Then if he turns out to be more Beta than Alpha, I'll have to put more thought into how that translates to “dramatic”.

Any words of wisdom from those of you who’ve gone around this circle too? And any ideas on creating intensity for a reader when the journey involves a not-so-formidable hero? (I know, I know -- that's probably an essay or book chapter in itself and I should get busy doing more research.)


Captain Hook said...

Oooh! I love Elizabeth Lowell.

Interpersonal dramatic tension. Hmmm . . . Can't say I've thought about it much. In general I'm one of those instinctive writers who doesn't think about processes or terms or grammar as I'm doing it.

That said, I know for plot tension, everyone I know always says, "For every situation, ask yourself what's the worst that could happen." And when I'm stuck, it works.

Emotional tension (and I hate when people assume that means fighting) could be done similarly. "What can take their emotions to the extreme?"

Just $0.02 from me, and I really don't have a clue.

Molli said...

Hi Captain. Thanks for the contribution. I hadn't considered asking the "worst that can happen" question from the emotional as well as plot angle, so that's two valuable cents more than I had before.

In my first story I wrote more from instinct than process but I find these days the studying I've done on the subject of storytelling keeps popping into my head. I expect it's another form of the editor-on-the-shoulder. I'm working on keeping her quiet for longer stretches with spotty success.

Erika said...

I wish I had some wisdom to contribute to your dilema, but I don't. I haven't thought about whether my RML is an Alpha or Beta male, he just is. That could very well come back to bite in the rear at a later date though. Maybe this is something I should be pondering too.

Molli said...

Hello Erika. From the sounds of it you have a character that "just is" already formed in your mind, and I think that's half my problem--my hero isn't fully fleshed out for me yet so I'm probably over-analyzing rather than letting the story flow. If your writing is flowing I'd say go with it and "ponder" later.


Karen said...

I wish I had sage advice for you too. Sigh.

For me, the sexiest beta heroes are super smart. I'm thinking of the TV show Numbers and the genius brother who consults with the FBI on tough cases. He's a math whiz and I suck at math. I never know what he's talking about and I find that so incredibly sexy. I'm also reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown right now and while its not a romance, I would call Robert Langdon a beta hero. The way he solves all those puzzles (for lack of a better word) is very appealing. I think the thing with beta heros is you can toss them into many situations that they have no prior knowledge or experience in handling because they're not you're navy seal, law enforcement type but they serious protectors just the same who rise to the occasion and triumph in the end and they face any fears along the way. Oh my gosh, how's that for rambling on? I hope it makes at least a small amount of sense even though it probably didn't answer your question.

Molli said...

Hi Karen. Thanks for dropping by, and I appreciated your "ramble". Other than HGTV, Discovery Channel, National Geographic and CBC news we don't watch TV, so I hadn't thought of it as a source of character comparison. That's something for me to consider now, along with Beta male characters I've liked in books outside of romances. Also a good excuse (ahem, reason) to pick up a few romances with Beta heroes -- any suggestions?

Captain Hook said...

Karen, I soooo agree with you. Charlie from NUMB3RS is a great beta her.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
Wow, this is a tough one. What is dramatic tension? I think it's got to be the conflict you've given your characters with each other, with the world at large and with themselves. The conflict has to mean something to the characters, so that it means something to the readers as well. For instance, if someone's life is at stake it's going to mean something to the characters and to the readers. You have to put the characters in opposition to each other. If one wins, the other loses. And like the Captain says, always ask yourself what's the worst that can happen? And then make it happen.

There are many ways of uping the stakes and creating tension, even in a book that's not necessarily a suspense. I hope I'm on the right track here and came even a little bit close to answering your question!


Molli said...

Hi Jana. It's not quite what I asked but I think you've reminded me of exactly what I need to remember, at least in this case. When I took another look at what was going on inside his head I realized that what was at stake for him in the situation didn't have the level of intensity I want. So, he doesn't have enough edge in his frame of mind during their interactions. To use that dictionary definition of dramatic, it's not intense or vivid to him, and of course that translates to the way he acts and reacts.

So, back to the drawing board with a purpose.

Karen said...

I just read somewhere your hero is a gamma male which means he's an alpha beta combo (the best of both worlds).

Janet C. said...

Fabulous post, Molli. And the comments are proving to be very enlightening as well.

I'm going in circles right now, thanks for reminding me! But with your discussion, I think I know what I need to do. For me, it's not so much my hero as my heroine - silly girl.

I love Karen's shared fact - that a hero can be a little bit alpha, a little bit beta (am I the only one who's humming the theme song to Donny and Marie right now?). While I loves me some alpha male, I like the smart, sensitive side to a guy, too.

Thanks, Molli, for giving me something to contemplate as I go forward - and stop circling the wagons (to keep with your lovely prairie theme).

Molli said...

So, Karen, I have a gamma cowboy -- interesting.....

Hello Janet. Glad to be of service -- and glad we're getting something out of this circling besides a wear spot. You, me and Taz, eh?

And Jana, I just realized I didn't actually say thanks, but I certainly should have.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Not sure I can add a lot, but this is a great discussion Molli. I think if you're looking for other perspectives on dramatic tension and internal tension, try looking into other genres. One example of less-than-macho male conflicts that springs to mind for me is the high school romance genre. Those legions of movies over the years about the awkward, non-confident, teenage boy trying to navigate adolescence and get the girl of his dreams... who often seems to already be keeping company with the jock. Plenty of moments for internal or external tension without need for truly high stakes or epic action. The tension is high because these things are The Most Important Things Ever to highschool students.

I'm so glad I'm done with that... :)

Anyway, I'm not sure if that really answers your question, or helps at all.

Molli said...

Thanks Hayley. I really like that idea. It reinforces the conclusion I arrived at earlier today on having to be conscious of the importance to the character, not the author, of what's at stake in the story. (Not to mention reminding me why I'm not tempted in the least to wish myself back to that stage in my life -- unless, of course, I get to keep the wisdom I've since accumulated.)

Silver James said...

Okay, I'm working on three hours sleep and a very long day so I may be mostly incoherent.

Emotional tension can be very satisfying to a reader. Like others have mentioned, figure out what's the worst that can happen. Then figure out what's the best that can happen. What would your character do to achieve the best? Lie? Cheat? Betray a friend? Or is he a man of honor? Would he walk away because he can't compromise his morals? If he walks away, how bad does it hurt?

I forget who said it, but we must torture our "darlings" to bring out their best and worst. And on that note, I'm going to bed now. G'night.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Molli, great post. As I was reading your post, Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart and Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele came to mind.

It sounds to me like you've written an alpha/beta hybrid. This isn't new because some writer friends and I were discussing this a few months ago. Every man isn't going to fit the perfect label.

Okay, I've just read the other comments and see where Karen even has a label for the kind of hero I'm talking about. So, maybe you can label all men. LOL

Molli said...

Silver, good to hear from you, particularly given the effort to stay up long enough to check in. I think you're right -- I haven't been hard enough on him yet.

Anita Mae, Remington Steele eh? Okay, I can see that. Thanks; not to be too cheeky, but I do like a good visual and Pierce Brosnan is that.