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by William H. Coles

Drama: core thoughts

Great fiction is surprise, delight, and mastery.
Conflict-action-resolution is the writer’s most essential tool.
Dramatic writing is more than just revealing prose.
Drama in literary fiction is mainly created through:

  • a core story premise,
  • unique and fully-realized characterization,
  • and logical and acceptable motivation.

Drama in literary fiction is choosing well what information is best for the story and then providing that information predominantly in action scenes.


Suspense: feeling of uncertainty, excitement, or worry over how something will turn out.

Suspense contributes to drama, but it is not the sole element of drama in literary fiction. Suspense in literary fiction is the fear of something happening to a character we like or respect, and the character’s personality affects the outcome of plot elements.

Jane books a flight to New York to plead with her estranged husband. Her pilot arrives too intoxicated to fly the plane, successfully covering up his reduced capacities. Jane boards the plane. The pilot ignores the usual preflight checklist. The fuel tanks are less than a quarter full.

Comment. Fear of something happening to a character, and if we like or respect the character, the suspense is heightened. Yet there is a lack in this plot construction of the character-driven element of literary fiction.

Jane calls her clandestine lover to fly her to New York in his small plane to meet with her estranged husband. She has made her lover distraught at her refusal to give up her efforts to patch her marriage. The lover arrives hung over from drowning his sorrows, and fails to complete a preflight checklist. The plane’s fuel tanks have not been refueled.

Comment. This is not a great story but it does show how character-driven plots differ from circumstantial plots. Note how the second scenario also allows for complexities in the resolution that may reveal more about the characters and contribute to the meaning of the story—say, love is the root of disaster. The lover might sacrifice his life for Jane, or visa versa. Again, character generation of plot to create literary fiction. In popular fiction, the resolution may be simply a plane crash or an emergency landing and the arrest of the pilot.

Withheld information

All stories have withheld information. As an author, you can only tell so much. But why an author withholds information contributes to the quality of the story. And when an author chooses to reveal story information is critical to story success; the expectations are different in genre fiction than in literary fiction.

In melodrama (using stereotypical characters; exaggerated descriptions of emotion; and simplistic conflict, and morality) crucial information is withheld to create suspense for a reader. But it is manipulation of the reader. The reader must accept this manipulation too; this reader knows the narrator knows who killed the rector but will accept not knowing until the end of the story to discover a fact. But in literary fiction, all information crucial for the story (this is an author being true to the story and not using the story) is presented for the sole purpose of engaging the reader. Then the reader becomes involved in (and with) the characters resolving their conflicts—not only in being told what is withheld—and the result is a change in the reader, a realization that nothing in their world will ever be the same because of their involvement in the story.

How story information is used—whether delivered or withheld—is the skeleton of how different authors create their own unique stories. Authors of literary stories must not exploit a reader’s interest and involvement through false handling of story facts. Instead, the reader must become involved in the story action and accept character change–and experience change in themselves.

Literary stories are harder to write and require more intense reading than nonliterary stories. A casual reader, not caring about involvement in the story, will prefer stories based on withheld facts—who murdered whom, for example. This reader (and at times all readers will have this goal) does not want to expend effort to become involved in a literary story. This is how most stories are told and enjoyed today. And it is an admirable skill, for an author, to write to this reader effectively. But literary fiction needs to be an alternative choice for readers in the mood to be involved.

Let’s say you write a story about a pregnant teenage girl traveling alone cross-country for an abortion. For many authors, the story may be about the revelation of who fathered the child. And the discovery of this withheld information will delight many readers.

But you could reveal all the circumstances of the pregnancy. What if it were incest and her father raped her, or what if the gym coach at school had seduced her on the trip to the finals in field hockey. Everything is up front. Now you set forth the structure to bring the reader into how the girl will solve her conflict—an unwanted pregnancy by someone she hates. You will reveal her nature and her capabilities. You will find a premise: forced love destroys a normal life, for example. And you will engender understanding in the reader that enlightens, or changes existing thought.

Drama is action

Most beginning writers do not have the instincts to write stories by creating conflict, action and resolution in a series of scenes that present a story happening that will involve the reader. For most part, beginners simple tell story happenings, often with complicated and inflated prose that is static and boring.

Examples of description and showing

Narrative description (telling):

Paul was jealous that Helen could sing with so much passion that others couldn’t take their eyes away from her as she performed.

In scene (showing):

Helen held the floor-stand microphone with both hands. The piano player played the introduction hunched over the keyboard. Helen took a deep breath and sang with a soft breathy voice, her eyes closed until the refrain when her gaze swept the audience of strangers, all watching her.
She sang three verses and smiled at the end without a bow. The crowd applauded.
Paul approached Helen as she climbed down off the stage.
“I wish I could sing like that,” Paul said. “I don’t have your ear for perfection.”

In scene action and showing should be the major portion of a literary story. But it is still true narrative telling, when condensed–and not as a vehicle for asides, and recall and reflection–can be useful to advance the story efficiently.

A) Narrative telling. (Quick, effective.)

The ship sank.

B) In-scene showing. (More story time, more engaging.)

The ocean liner listed, taking on water through the hole the torpedo made in her portside. The bridge shuddered from two explosions in the engine room, and as the crew struggled to release the lifeboats. And the bow disappeared beneath the surface first, soon followed by the hull.

The feeling of momentum must not be lost in a story. The key is learning how to write with action (see also Momentum).


Examples from A Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers.

Story examples with dramatic elements: Suchin’s Escape, The Miracle of Madame Villard, The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings.

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