Sixty second writing tip: melodrama vs real drama

There is a scene in Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) where the protagonists meet the villain ‘Teabing’ and spend most of a chapter on exposition.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medWhile they’re doing it, a pink-eyed assassin is sneaking up on them. I never liked that scene. It was melodrama. You can imagine it in a British music hall skit:

Audience: He’s behind you!

(intruder ducks, ostenatiously, behind a couch).

Baige Gent: (finally looking) Oh no he isn’t!

Audience: Oh yes he is!

I suspect Brown had the asssassin turn up because the scene was otherwise a boring “please explain, Professor” data dump. No tension.

The way to make a scene like that dramatic isn’t to have The Bad Guy sneaking up on The Good Guys while they’re pontificating. It’s to throw tension into the interactions of The Good Guys. This is where tension comes from any scene:

1. The character arc of the main protagonist creates it – the dissonance between what they want, and what they need.

2. It is created by dissonance between the differing goals of the characters (given multiple dimension, and the difference between what them wants, and what they need).

3. Drama also comes from some threat to the intended goals of one or more of the main characters, either from the difference between their goal and that of another character – or an actual threat. Think Hemingway and The Old Man And The Sea. Hugely dramatic, all the way, because of the relentless tension created by the interpolation of the sea.

To make these work, you also have to create a character the reader feels for – that they identify with.

The master of tension-by-dialogue was Isaac Asimov, whose books generally consisted of long discussions. But they carried in them all the drama and character development demanded of any novel.

How did he do it? Those rules above, that’s how.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


4 thoughts on “Sixty second writing tip: melodrama vs real drama

  1. Thanks Matthew. Another great tip. I write social/family history stories based on my characters tracing their genealogy, unlocking secrets and making discoveries along the way. Sometimes, there are quiet patches. Anyone who has done genealogy knows there can be long periods of finding nothing and times when what you find doesn’t go any further. The characters can sometimes be flat because of this as they are simply ordinary people doing ordinary things. But everyone has a story to tell. It’s just a matter of finding one small trigger. These rules will help enormously.

    1. Glad to be of assistance! These rules certainly work for non-fiction – this is what I usually write, though I was actually trained in fiction writing..

  2. Nice evaluation Matthew – easier said than done though, otherwise we’d all be selling as many as Dan Brown! 🙂

    1. Absolutely. Brown’s key was the way he drove tension – structurally he was spot on in that regard and I think that was one of the reasons why the books worked…it’s just that – by my standards at least – he couldn;t characterise, or write proper grammar, and his research was full of holes…

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