I've been listening to a lot of full-cast audio dramas recently, as well as recording some of my own fiction in audio format, and it's clear how much more active the writing needs to be when it's performed.
But whether you're writing for audio or not, we can all learn to make our writing better through dramatic techniques, as Jules Horne explains in today's article.
How can you make your fiction bolder, clearer, more memorable? Try using dramatic techniques!
When I first got into playwriting and screenwriting, I was amazed at all the powerful techniques I found. Even though I’d written fiction and devoured writing books for breakfast, many were new to me.
And you really, really grow as a writer when you go see your first play, and the person next to you falls sound asleep. This still makes me laugh (thank you, Isle of Skye!). It also punctured any remnants of writer ego and made me roll up my sleeves and learn as much technique as possible.
What’s so special about dramatic techniques?
Everything that happens in a script has to be visual, physical and dynamic. It has to have in-built tension, like a sprung spring, to give it forward momentum. It also has to work in front of an audience. And script scenes are mostly linear, without the interior mind-meandering that’s possible in fiction.
So, scriptwriters learn a whole toolbox of techniques to create tension, avoid exposition and keep the action alive and present. Sounds useful for fiction? You bet!
I often use dramatic techniques in feeding back to students as a fiction ‘doctor’ (teaching Open University). Here are six of the most powerful ones.
1. Get physical – writing with objects
In drama, objects create a focus and point of negotiation between characters. They can help externalize status and power play, too. Shakespeare has some great examples – poor Richard II handing over his crown, the ass’s head and magic potions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
How to use this:
Brainstorm objects and things within your scene. Then brainstorm ways they can be used. Think verbs! Hide, destroy, mend, transfer, transform… What can your characters do with this object? Especially when they’re on opposite sides.
Pick the object with most resonance and interest, give the characters opposite objectives, and build a scene around it.
2. Turn monologue into dialogue
If you have too many reflective, interior scenes, your story can grind to a halt. Often, editing down a characters’ memories, musings and exposition can help. But it’s bolder to take a structural approach and give your character someone to talk to.
Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away is a brilliant example of monologue turned to dialogue. But it’s a non-speaking part! Shakespeare example: lovestruck Juliet could sigh and swoon all on her own. But much livelier to give her the fabulous Nurse to talk to!
How to use this:
Find a scene driven by your character’s memory, musing or exposition. Brainstorm ways to haul it outside their heads. Maybe an interlocuter? But not just an inert sounding board.
Give your character a dramatic reason to reflect, dream or explain. Something involving the other character. Again, active verbs are your friend: plead, persuade, shame. Brainstorm! Put the interlocutor in conflict with your main character. This will give your scene tension and energy.
3. Punch up exposition – use as ammunition
Exposition – info-dumps of backstory – is often seen as a sin in dramatic writing. It slows the pace and distances the audience. Often, it’s simply left out, allowing the audience to piece things together.
If you carefully control imaginative gaps like this, it’s more engaging for the audience. But when you need to get information across, one useful exposition technique is ‘exposition as ammunition’.
They’re so blood-boilingly angry, anguished or twisted that they can’t help dropping backstory: ‘That’s the fifth time this year! Two million by September – ha! You’re a doctor/plumber/lumberjack, for god’s sake – do something! She’s your ex, Simon. And exes don’t turn up at the door after ten years in heels and a little lycra number!’
This is a good way to disguise information, but limit its use to key facts. If your characters blurt a lot, then it’s a rant. And rants can also be info-dumps.
4. The power of secrets #1 – dramatic irony
Dramatic irony means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Structurally, it puts powerful tension on a scene, because the audience is primed for the delicious moment when the character finds out.
Shakespeare example: Ophelia dies. The audience knows, but Hamlet doesn’t. He arrives back home after years away, to find a grave being dug. Whose grave is it? Does he get an answer? Not till the end of the scene. Cunning Shakespeare keeps us on the edges of our seats. It’s the most famous scene in dramatic history (the one with the skull), and it’s powered by dramatic irony.
How to use this:
Power up a scene by building in dramatic irony. Plant something that the audience knows, but the characters don’t. Or some characters know it, but a key character doesn’t. This will create a gap of tension.
Don’t let the character find out early in the scene. Make it late – a turning point. Now, create pressure. Brainstorm reasons why the characters have to keep the secret. Force it out of them with an escalating series of events. Use a scene timeline (beats) to map this shape.
5. The power of secrets #2 – creating character conflict
But it’s often forgotten that irony is also a kind of weapon. Characters can use it to control, divide and play each other, whether in benign or innocent ways, or with malicious intent. This makes secrets perfect for tension and conflict, which is the motor of story.
Chinatown and A Streetcar Named Desire are oozing with slow-burn secrets between characters.
How to use this:
Get to grips with the structural power of secrets. When writing a scene, build in tension by putting at least one character outside the information loop. Brainstorm verbs to articulate the reasons why your characters might conceal or reveal secrets: positives such as reveal, surprise, delight, withhold, protect?
Or scheming manipulate, gaslight, mock, collude, exclude? Use this to structure the arc and beats (stages) of your scene. Arrange the beats for maximum impact and escalation.
6. Dramatic action – the engine of story
Dramatic action isn’t about leaping around or being physical. It’s a technical term which means the underlying drive of the scene. Think of an invisible engine pushing your characters into collision.
Its fuel is a verb: conquer, join, divide, leave, persuade, confess… These verbs are character ‘wants’ or motivations. To create a dynamic scene, make sure your characters have strong wants and are in conflict with each other. Then the fur will fly!
How to use this:
If you have a sagging scene, examine its dramatic structure. Does each character have a clear ‘want’ to drive the scene? And are those wants in clear conflict?
For example: Clara wants to leave Brad, but he’s desperate for her to stay. The dramatic action of the scene is around leaving, and the dramatic question is: will Clara leave Brad?
Put the moment of ‘leaving’ at the end of the scene, and work backwards. Brainstorm tactics (also verbs) which each side might use to achieve their goal. Sometimes these tactics are called ‘beats’ (as in ‘beat sheet’). Play with their order – try to escalate in impact and intensity. Note: this will leave you with a straight structure.
Next, build in:
7. Reversals – dramatic U-turns
A reversal is a turning point. In Greek drama, it’s called peripeteia, and means ‘a change of fortune’. In a wider sense, it means a kind of pivot, when your characters are heading in one direction, and suddenly veer in another. Luke Skywalker’s Darth Vader ‘Father’ moment is a great example.
But reversals don’t need to be high stakes or high octane. They also happen at small moments within scenes. They could be as simple as Clara suddenly wanting Brad after all, or accepting a cake after three refusals. Reversals are crucial to the flow and interest of story-telling. They help to keep the audience on their toes.
How to use this:
With your scene arc mapped out, character wants and conflict clear, tactics brainstormed, try building in a reversal. Look for a moment near the end of the scene, when things come to a head between the characters. Who prevails?
Once this happens, can you pull the rug out from under them in some way? Brainstorm unexpected actions by the characters. What feels powerful and pivots their relationship? Write this into your scene.
Script ‘notes’ – examples
Scriptwriters have to be robust! It’s a collaborative process, so they need professional shorthand to cut to the chase. Here are some examples of ‘notes’ used by script and acting professionals when working on scripts. The concepts can help fiction writers to write and edit more robustly, too.
It needs a key dramatic action or scene arc to give it momentum.
Conversation, not dialogue
Again, this is about underlying dramatic tension.
Lines where the main impact is lost because it’s muddily written. This is usually about rhythm and beginnings and ends of lines.
Too much telling
Telling on stage can bring pace to a complete halt. So you really feel it.
Marching on the spot
Dialogue without dramatic momentum.
On the nose
Lines that state the obvious.
No clear throughline
The scene doesn’t have an underlying dramatic shape.
There are many more dramatic techniques and concepts that fiction writers can draw on to give their writing more impact. If you’d like to know more, see Dramatic Techniques for Creative Writers by Jules Horne, Book 2 in the Method Writing series.
Do you apply some of these dramatic techniques when writing your novels? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Jules Horne is a Fringe First-winning playwright and fiction writer who teaches part-time with the Open University.
[Writing image courtesy Cathryn Lavery and Unsplash. Sword photo courtesy Ricardo Cruz and Unsplash. Two women whispering photo courtesy Ben White and Unsplash. Tug of war image courtesy rawpixel and Unsplash.]