Thriller Guy was riding in his car the other day listening to his XM radio and they played a promo they’ve played a million times, which annoys TG greatly, but this time it led to some further thought. Some NPR producer or someone said, “Drama is anticipation mixed with uncertainty.” TG has heard this many times on this promo and his first thought is usually, “WTF does that mean?” And being really lazy, he usually doesn’t dwell on it any further. But because TG has recently been working with several authors on their novels, and because subjects like this are always of interest to readers of this blog, (or so one would hope) a few tumblers clicked into place and some further thoughts percolated to the top of TGs brain pan.
Let’s take this definition of drama and break it down. Anticipation means, in its simplest form, expecting something to happen. When we are reading a book, the story leads us to anticipate certain events. We may hope for them to happen, or we may fear that they are going to happen. If they do happen we may feel fulfilled, happy or sad. If they don’t happen, we may feel cheated or that the author has missed an opportunity, but if it’s written properly what we usually feel is surprise. These are the twists in plotlines that are so great, the one’s that make you sit back and say, whoa, I didn’t see that coming.
Uncertainty, is simply defined as not definitely known.
So when you put the two of them together, you get drama. If you’re reading a book, you anticipate what is going to happen to the characters, but because of the way the author manipulates his story you may not be able to figure out what is going to happen and this pushes you to a more heightened feeling of excitement as you read. This is where authors want readers to be: excited, turning the pages as fast as they can eager to find out what is going to happen. In other words, drama has been created.
Drama as defined by the OED is an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances. This is kind of a bloodless definition, but further searches in dictionaries don’t provide any better ones.
OK, hang with me, TG is going to get to the point eventually. When reading his clients’ manuscripts, TG is often struck by the lack of the kind of reading excitement we are discussing above. The stories may be exciting in the way that reading about a car chase is exciting, or watching one in a movie, or a gun battle or an airplane dogfight or military battle, or any number of scenes one hopes to find in the thriller genre. But aside from the single level of physical excitement that is engendered by the words, there’s often no depth, no drama in these scenes. Why is that? Drum roll, please…
Because there’s no uncertainty in the characters or the plot.
This is often because the characters -- heroes and villains – are pretty much like many other heroes and villains in many other books. Ditto the love interests, backgrounds and life circumstances. Think scruffy private investigators who drink too much, military men who seem to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and take a few gut shots from high powered weapons and be up and fighting later the same day, evildoers who were abused as children, terrorists whose parents were killed by American servicemen, CIA turncoats who commit treason for the money, secret agents who lose their jobs unfairly because they were trying to do good, any character who does something either good or bad because a loved one needs an operation, gutless government types, whores with a heart of gold, evil government types who have a secret agenda, etc. TG could go on and on because he as seen it all, both in published novels he reads and reviews and in the manuscripts others hire him to “fix.”
Well, TG, you may ask, how do I go about creating original characters, or original plots? The same way TG has told you over and over again in this blog: by reading, reading, reading classic and contemporary novels in whatever genre you are writing in. Here’s a rule: if you are writing your first thriller, you should spend one fourth of your work time for the first six months reading other thrillers. After your first book is published, you can cut back the time, but you should be constantly reading thrillers as part of your research. Oh, TG, you whine, there are so many bad books out there, I don’t want to waste my valuable writing time with bad books. The thing is, if you can learn why a book is bad, you learn how to make your own book good: by not doing what the guy did in the bad book. And this means reading the damn thing all the way through, then tossing it into the trash. There may be surprises along the way while you’re reading.
There’s a certain hubris that comes over many writers when they switch to a genre that they consider popular or even beneath their talents. TG has complained about this on these pages as well; literary writers who want to tap into the money to be made in popular novels, journalists who think they have a great story to tell, government insiders who also think they have fabulous stories. The thinking is always, how hard could it be? They feel that if they are able to do one thing well, then they are able to do another thing, with connections to what they do well, well. How about that for a convoluted sentence? So, to reiterate, if you want to write an original thriller with original characters you need to read other thrillers, and you need to read a lot of them, both good and bad. And you need to get over yourself.
If your plot is unoriginal, then your reader will always know where you are going with it, meaning there is no uncertainty, meaning no drama.
If your characters are unoriginal, the reader will always know how they are going to react to every new situation, hence no uncertainty, hence no drama.
If you don’t know what everyone else has done, you won’t know what you should do.
Print it out, cut it out, paste it to your monitor: Originality engenders drama.
Sit down; shut up; read, read, read.