Developing a Dramatic Experience
by Junse Kim
I've been teaching fiction writing courses at both the "Intro" and graduate levels for over ten years, and what I've found interesting is that there are specific issues that consistently plague writers, no matter the level. These issues relate to the process of writing a narrative, and the tendency to focus on plot events without developing the narrative's dramatic experience. Below are four tips that can address these issues. Hope you find them helpful.
Focus on the Process, not Product
Be kind to yourself and don’t self-judge your writing (especially if you’re in a workshop that has dispensed some critical comments about your manuscript). Instead, work at honing the narrative craft that can address your writing issues. When you focus on the process of
developing narrative skills, your writing (product) will improve as a side effect.
Make your characters real to you
When writing a story, it’s tempting/easier to create a general concept of a character. But when one develops a story with this character, what comes out on the page is only a concept of drama. Make your characters real to you, and not just in their appearance, but in what is important to them in the story, their motivations behind their actions. Then, put this on the page and see what happens.
Identify your story’s drama
A narrative’s plot and drama are not always the same thing. Plot is what occurs in the story, while drama is what makes readers care about what happens. It is through your main character(s) that the reader is able to vicariously experience your narrative’s drama in ways that are emotionally moving. Whether you are writing a first draft or revision, ask yourself, how is this story specifically dramatic for your main character(s) as the plot unfolds, and then write it into your story.
Don’t rely on dramatic facts, develop dramatic experience
There’s a common narrative issue of substituting dramatic experiences with dramatic facts, such as: “He grew up with alcoholic parents and it was awful;” or “Her father had a heart attack on her birthday.” While these two statements sound like dramatic scenarios, they are only facts with assumptions of how they were dramatic for the characters. Provide the reader your character’s specific experiences that evoke the awfulness of growing up with alcoholic parents, or why a father’s death on a birthday is dramatic for your character. What emotions are they experiencing?
Junse Kim is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Faulkner Short Story Award, and the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing at Bucknell University. He teaches fiction writing at the advanced level at San Francisco State University's MFA program and at the San Francisco Writer's Grotto, and at the Intro level at The Writing Salon in San Francisco and Berkeley.