An odd title, I know. Hopefully it’ll make sense by the end.
So, everybody here knows a drama queen, right?
I know there are two or three international readers here, and maybe they’re called something different across the ocean. Drama queens can be male or female and, as the name implies, they make drama. All the time. It’s what they release instead of the sweat and pheromones the rest of us let off. No matter how simple or mundane the situation, they’ll find a way to complicate it and over-emotionalize it. It’s what they do. I had a drama queen friend once who could make a dozen people going to the movies an operation on par with storming the beaches of Normandy. Operation Desert Shield was child’s play compared with getting all of us out to see the new Lord of the Rings.
Now, people do behave irrationally sometimes, and we all have a buffer of sorts for it. There’s one time that you’ll accept someone’s insistence this is the worst thing that can ever happen, despite all evidence it’s pretty minor. We’re all decent enough to let a friend have one breakdown or emotional crisis for no real reason. That’s what friends do. Sometimes molehills really do look like mountains. We’ve all been there. If this happens once, it doesn’t make you a drama queen.
Here’s the thing about these folks, though. The litmus test, if you will. They can pull their business once. That’s it. The second time someone tries to make a production out of a text message, or a trip to the grocery store, or a rumor they heard, you’re going to be taking it with a grain of salt. The third time it’ll be a spoonful of salt. And by the fourth time, you’ll already be focusing past them before the second word.
Starting to see where we’re going with this?
Some folks have a bad habit of creating false drama in their writing. They want to keep the reader’s interest, so they throw in something that they know is considered a good element for their chosen genre. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Bob and Cindy kiss passionately. With no warning, Emily starts to freak out over the message she just got. People start shooting at Dan. Out of nowhere, the car blows up. And then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob.
Let me use films as an example. Most folks have seen a movie that’s just loaded with action. Where there are gunfights, explosions, ninjas, and more. Non-stop ninjas, in fact. Cyborg ninjas. From the future. With nuclear self-destruct devices on timers. Short timers. And yet... the movie didn’t hold your attention. Bored you, even.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve had to sit through an indie film. And by indie I don’t mean independent, I mean indie. That special sub-genre of film that’s grown over the past decade. Indie films usually have a lot of people talking. Or not talking. Maybe staring at walls, old photos, or trees. Staring deeply. Pondering. And all the while, they’re trying to deal with issues. Problems. Things that weigh heavy on their soul. And talking some more. Or screaming. Or crying. Or then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob. And that’s not holding your attention either, is it? Bored again, aren’t you.
This is all empty material. It’s false drama. It’s unmotivated action. And like the drama queen we’ve all known, it doesn’t take us too long to start tuning it out.
This is, for the record, a very, very common first draft problem. Someone comes up with an interesting idea on page 98 and drops it in, ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing in the 97 pages before it even slightly or remotely hint at this idea. It isn’t a bad idea mind you. It just comes out of nowhere, like me suddenly shouting out WHANGDOODLE for no reason. Might be eyecatching and funny once. Maybe. But wouldn’t it be better, and more keeping with the rest of the post, if I made an off-color joke about some of those cyborg ninjas traveling back in time even further and molesting Cindy when she was a child?
So, the easiest ways to avoid all this emptiness...
Motivation. If one of your characters is doing something, whether they’re one of the leads or that guy they bump on the street, they should have a reason for doing it. It should be consistent with what we’ve seen them do before. This includes people we don’t see at all, like the people who are setting bombs under cars or loading that song into the jukebox. If there’s no reason for someone to do it, that probably means no one should do it.
Realism. It doesn’t have to be tied to our real world, but what’s happening in your story should be believable within the reality of your story. Cyborg ninjas are great in Bytestrike VII: Computron’s Revenge. They are not quite as impressive or fitting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Coherency. A sci-fi story shouldn’t turn into a gothic romance halfway through. Likewise, a chick-lit story about shopoholics shouldn’t decend into a bloodbath. And hardened soldiers on the battlefront shouldn’t break down in tears because war is so icky and their boots are too tight. If you come up with a neat idea, go back and make it a consistent idea thoughout your writing.
Relevance. Okay, maybe Cindy was molested by time-travelling cyborg ninjas when she was thirteen. Does that really have anything to do with the story of her trying to save the historic movie theater in her town from demolition? Will it have any effect on that meeting she’s having with the developers and the town council? If not, why are you bringing it up? Yeah, it may be rich character development, but it’s also distracting from your actual story, and that’s what everyone’s here to read.
So, look back over your manuscript and make sure everything’s actually got something behind it. No empty drama. No empty explosions. Make sure it’s all got some weight to it.
Next week, by request, a few thoughts on names and what’s in them.
Until then... go write.