Borrowing Fiction Techniques 2 - Drama

by Richard Goodman

Drama.

We writers all want it. We all need it. We want our readers to be thrilled, excited, moved, and, most of all, not bored. In creative nonfiction, we need drama at least as much as in fiction. That’s because, to return to the opening premise of this essay, the subject matters for nonfiction, and especially memoir, are inherently dramatic—dying of cancer, being molested, falling off a mountain—but the writer may too often decide the fact these things actually happened is sufficient drama in itself. That can be a fatal mistake. The question is how can we take these events and produce a drama that extends far beyond ourselves to the rest of the unknown world.

Drama comes in all shapes and sizes. I believe drama is best produced quietly, rather than by shouting or by weeping and wailing. It often takes a while to produce. There is a memorable example in a Sherwood Anderson short story, “Adventure,” from Winesburg, Ohio. The main character, Alice Hindman, makes love with a young man one reckless evening, only to have him leave for Chicago to seek his fortune. He promises to return, or to send for her, and then they will be married. But he never does. Still, she keeps waiting through the years. Her behavior becomes more and more erratic. Finally, one stormy evening, “a strange desire took possession of her,” and she undresses and runs naked out of the house into the rain. A drunken old man wandering by sees her:

Alice dropped to the ground and lay trembling. She was so frightened at the thought of what she had done that when the man had gone on his way she did not dare get to her feet, but crawled on hands and knees through the grass to the house. When she got to her own room she bolted the door and drew her dressing table across the doorway. Her body shook as with a chill and her hands trembled so that she had difficulty getting into her night- dress. When she got into bed she buried her face in the pillow and wept brokenheartedly. “What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.

That last sentence! It explodes with drama, quietly on the page, but hugely in our hearts, because of all the dashed hopes and delusions that have preceded it, step by quiet step. Anderson is a master at telling a story simply and surely.

The opening line of your story can have as much drama as the last line. I don’t mean to suggest that every story you write need have a dramatic opening line and ending line, but, well, that wouldn’t be bad, either. Your first line should, though, capture the reader’s attention and force him or her to read onward. This can be accomplished by making it a kind of ultra-condensed piece of information. Take the beginning of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat:”

None of them knew the color of the sky.

We understand, from the title of the story, that there is an open boat. We infer the said open boat is on the sea, or on some large body of water. We also infer there are people in it. So, when we are given the information that none of them knew the color of the sky, we also infer, and rightly, because the sentence is so precisely constructed, that they are too weary to raise their heads to determine the color of the sky. So, ultimately, we conclude that they have been in this open boat for a long time, which is exactly what Crane wants us to conclude. All done with a mere nine words.

One more example of the calm before the storm—again, from In Cold Blood. We remember that Truman Capote is relating the killer Perry Smith’s account of the Clutter family murder. Smith is calmly and evenly talking about Herb Clutter, the father. Up to thus point, we know Smith is the killer, but he’s never admitted it. Then, he says, simply:

“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

Nothing else, no exclamation marks. No, “Oh my God’s!” from Capote. Just that—naked for us to see. Then on to the next paragraph. This seems to me a perfect example of how to convey something horrible (or sad, tragic, miserable) to the reader—calmly and clearly, without editorializing.

Creating drama, then, is often a case of letting the act speak for itself.

Of course, if you do have something really dramatic to reveal, sometimes the best way to reveal it is with a big, fat splash. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes is being told the details of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville by his friend and doctor, James Mortimer. This is how Conan Doyle ends Chapter II:

“But one false statement was made by Barrymore [the butler] at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did—some little distance off, but fresh and clear.”

“Footprints?”

“Footprints.”

"A man or woman’s?”

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

Some things you don’t want to leave to the imagination. You don’t want to whisper them. There is absolutely nothing wrong about being emphatic when you need to be. Notice, though, how that scene, that entire chapter, builds up to this dramatic revelation, and how it leaves us hanging, almost falling in anticipation. There is no reason why you cannot think specifically of drama when writing nonfiction in the way a fiction writer does, by creating a sense of surprise for the reader, either softly or loudly. This is far more than just spilling the events on the page.

The fact that your story is true is a powerful weapon to have on your side. The idea, though, is not to take the writing of it for granted. And for that lesson, there is no better place to turn than to the world of fiction. The very best creative nonfiction writers always have, and you feel that world reverberate through their stories like a bell.


This article originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.