Are you afraid of (melo)drama?

from Bent Objects

Do you fear the whiff of melo in drama? Do you favour character-driven over plot-driven fiction? Do one-liner pitches of your story feel crass, formulaic… embarrassing?

I do. Or, I did.

When I imagine Great Writing, I can’t help but think of lofty literary prose dealing with deeper than real life questions, philosophical and untethered…blah blah blah. I know. I don’t like reading that crap either, really. Nevertheless, there’s this strange nagging aspiration for ART.

from Bent Objects

Not that I want to worry people away from stories before they even read them. I have real plots with twists and turns, the odd reversal — exciting stuff. Nor do I ultimately believe all this precludes ART. And I yet, I resist the urge to summarize.
There’s the often repeated adage:

Stop talk about your writing and write.

I couldn’t agree more. If I pitch a story in a sentence or two, I inevitably burst the excitement bubble and a novel that loomed large and grand with possibility deflates to a sagging piddly puddle. Then I have to wait for a rebuilding of that former vision, that is, if it can ever be rebuilt at all.

How can we overcome (or work to overcome) these insecurities?

A recent blog post is pushing me to read Stephen Koch’s Modern Library Writer’s Workshop that I coincidentally have on loan from the library. While it’s not my all time favourite book on writing so far, the advice Koch gives on Shaping the Story resonates with the fears and insecurities I’ve introduced here.

Embrace drama.
Embrace improbability.
Above all, don’t fear either one of them.

This is after all what story is about. An idea transported by characters through plot to you and me and every other reader.

Drama is not melodrama.

We all know that every story needs conflict. Conflict generates suspense and that keeps our reader turning the page. Conflict arises in interactions between characters. No lonesome brooding philosophizing, or twosome brooding at that. Where the central conflict happens is where we find our characters. That’s why we’re writing about them in particular, the improbable, and yes dramatic, perspective among the many other more likely but boring ones.

That advice is familiar and good but it doesn’t address the undercurrent of insecurities. Am I just a hack writing, worse than genre fiction typing in the blanks on some cookie cutter outline? That’s exaggerating of course, but the fear is real. Koch attacks this head on:

Any time you create drama, you will use devices that can be derogated as ‘formulas.’ Don’t let the issue be whether there is or is not some ‘formula’ in your story. What matters is the kind of imaginative authority you find for that story, formula or no.

The inability to distinguish melodrama from its plainer cousin is simply disabling the writer.

Finally, should you, like me, hold ‘character-driven’ stories in a higher standing over the ‘plot-driven’ ones, remember:

To pit ‘character’ against ‘story’ is like trying to walk on one leg. Of course, any little stroll starts out on one leg.

We can still aspire to art, but only if it doesn’t shackle us and drag us into the mire of introspective drudgery. Embrace the excitement and let your words run… soar! Remember, writing should be fun.