Shaun Levin

Too Much Drama Too Close to the Start

In Writing, Writing Exercises on March 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Sometimes you wake up into the hopelessness. What you’ve written is all wrong. That scene you’ve just spent the last few days writing threatens to topple the entire novel with its consequences. And, no, you are not catastrophising! Something as big as that scene should not be happening so near the beginning of the novel; there needs to be time for things like that to build up, time for that kind of crescendo or confrontation to happen. Even hope needs time. And redemption. Drama as big as that can happen later. Save it for the peak. A scene like that, with that kind of energy, can, before it appears, carry the tension and suspense of a novel for a good few chapters.

So what do you do with it now? Now that it’s been written and it’s all wrong.

Sit in it. Sit with the worry and the dread that you’ve messed up, that the novel is on shaky ground and it’s all your fault. You’ve ruined it. Sit with that. Make a cup of tea and sit in a chair you don’t often sit in and think about what to do. On a day like yesterday, after what has felt like, and has been weeks of grey skies, sheets of it weighing down on the city like an iron dome, you could sit outside in the sun. That’s somewhere you haven’t been able to sit very often recently. Sit in the chaos. Mythology teaches us that chaos cannot last forever. Even if it feels like it will.

The solution (ie. order) can only come out of the chaos. No distractions. No outside help. This is a big one and you need to go it alone. It’s your novel. To paraphrase the Abbess of Crewe, in her lofty calm: “There’s a novel going on, and you’re in it up to the neck, whether you like it or not.”

One solution is to mute the scene, to take the intensity down a notch or two. Save the major drama for later. The major drama you thought would happen now can be postponed; the muted version will create a hunger for more, a bloodlust for the real showdown. And that hunger will sit in the novel like a secret, like a time bomb, an IED, something waiting to be told, to erupt, to reveal itself when least expected. If you know that, the reader will get a sense of it and even if they’re not conscious of it, they’ll be waiting. And so will you.

Save the big drama for your own surprise.

Another thing to do with big drama that feels wrong, that feels over the top too soon, is to turn it into a what-if, an imagined moment. So if you’ve just written the scene in which she lunges for the woman in the department store who’s just called her vile names and yanks the earring from her ear, ripping apart the lobe, you could transform that into what the character imagining doing something so violent, a what-if scenario. And by doing that you will have 1) created a scene of intense drama, albeit imagined, and 2) conveyed the character’s capacity for acts of violence that will now sit in the novel like Chekhov’s loaded gun.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to go to sleep, and to wake up into whatever you wake up into. Sometimes the horror of having done it all wrong is the beginning of the solution. Without that, something not-quite-right might have stayed in the novel and done to it what you most feared it would. It might even have scared you off.

How do we get better if there is never a sense of failure, never a moment of wondering now what? Our mistakes can be an asset. They raise questions, things to grapple with that lead to answers, new ways of dealing with narrative that will then be available to us when similar problems arise in the future.

And yes, I know someone who did that to someone in a department store when she was in high school in North London. But that’s another story.

  1. I think it’s somewhat of a blessing to wake up and your writing is wrong. It’d be much worse if you wrote the wrong thing and couldn’t even recognize you did. The mark of a good writer is not being able to write everything good, but being able to see the difference between good and bad writing.

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Mark. I guess it’s also learning to trust that feeling that something’s not quite right with the scene, and trusting that there’s a way to fix it.

  2. […] It’s not the first time you’ve questioned where the drama should be in your novel. […]

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