Drama is tricky to master. Too much of it and readers find it funny for the wrong reasons. Too little and readers start snoring. Readers are well educated when it comes to stories. Memorable drama doesn’t come without effort from the writer. It takes forethought and direction to shape a story into a page-turner. Here’s seven ways to improve drama and narrative.
1) Change the Rules—Plot Twist!
You decide the rules. You can change them. Plots twists disrupt the status quo and epitomize one of the biggest ‘create drama’ buttons a writer has. Was that character important?—whoops!—they died. Was that character dead and gone? Nope. Here they are causing trouble again.
Beyond killing and resurrecting characters there are many ways to flip a story on its head. Let’s look at scenarios for simple but effective plot twists.
We’ve got two characters who are friendly coworkers. They’re likeable but also a bit boring. What twist can we use? How about promoting one of them to a leadership role over the other? Now their friendship is complicated. Watch the tension rise as they reevaluate their new relationship. There’s an initial excitement with the promotion, but before long the winds of reality blow in—one friend is forced to order the other around. More conflict. More interest for the reader. Do they maintain the friendship? Do they turn against each other? This ‘allies to enemies’ twist is a great way to ratchet up tension in a story.
Here’s another one. Our protagonist is an assassin for hire. There’s a cool assassin world and cool assassination scenes, but somehow it feels lame. What twist can we use? How about turning an enemy into an ally? Upon finally catching their target, our protagonist learns during the shootout that their target was likewise sent to kill them. Both characters exchange facts about who hired them while rising from cover to fire at each other. They soon realize the same person hired both of them. The characters stop fighting and decide to go after the individual who hired them out of revenge. What started as a monetary motivation for our protagonist is now personal and more interesting. Changing the dynamics between characters with a plot twist is a time-tested way to increase drama and reader interest.
2) Move the Goalposts
Conflict that grabs and holds a reader is what we’re after. One way to make a story more interesting is by putting your protagonist at the precipice of achieving their goals before moving that goal beyond reach. They’ve got what they wanted—until they don’t at all.
When a character’s goal slips through their grasp, they have more work to do. Their desires sharpen. How badly do they want what they want? They grow as characters. They’re more interesting to watch. A frustrated character has more relatable conflict because like the our world not everyone gets what they want.
Here’s a small example. Say your protagonist has worked all night to finally be alone with their romantic interest, but—oops—an emergency! The love interested is abandoned mid-sentence with little explanation. This small frustration makes later interactions between the characters more dramatic. It may seem small and simple, but short sequences like this enhance the quality of a story greatly.
Here’s another example. Say your protagonist is a detective. Have them solve the wrong murder unexpectedly. Their coworkers in the department may be proud or jealous, but it restates the protagonist’s desires. The protagonist didn’t want to solve any murder but one particular murder. It shows that the detective is getting too personal in their work. When the characters find their goals moved out of range, they double down on their desires which makes future threats to those goals even scarier for them. It’s a simple way to add to the drama, and it’s timeless . Practicing where and when to use it is the key.
3) Hit the Ground Running
Great stories have great openings. But great openings aren’t an accident. They condense a bombardment of story info into a finely tuned, entertaining machine. Great openings don’t have to be loud or flashy, but they have to hook the reader.
In the early stages of writing you may have no firm idea where your story is going. You may be meeting your characters and their world for the first time. The perfect opening won’t be there yet. Perhaps your novel project started with an awesome character and you wanted to see what would happen to them next. Or perhaps there was a single scene you just couldn’t shake—one that anchored the story and kept you writing. Whatever the initial burst, it’s important to keep in mind that a later scene might make a better opening scene.
Your opening scene is introducing readers to everything to come, but it should involve character choice and conflict from the outset. What does the protagonist want? If it’s not established by the end of the first scene, there’s less dramatic direction.
Even if your story starts with, ‘Hi, I’m Jim, and this is my world…’ there should still be a hint in that first monologue of what the protagonist wants (whether they know it or not). In Jim’s case, let’s say, it’s reconciliation with his father. A throwaway line that attacks his father out of nowhere and unrelated to his other descriptions can lay out a roadmap for the reader of where the future story is headed.
4) Cut Loose Ends
It’s always worth repeating this question—does the story need it? How ‘sub’ is your subplot? Is it ‘sub’ enough that it begins subtracting from the main plot rather than enhancing it? If it’s subtracting substantially from the main story, consider leaving it in the pile of backstory that doesn’t see final form in front of a reader. Many things you write that expand your characters or world won’t make the final cut. That’s fine. That’s writing.
How can you tell what needs to be cut? Or just condensed?
Upon revision, the loose threads will begin to show themselves unraveling. Plot points you thought mattered early on will look weak. The end of the story is in place so it’s easier to build toward it. Revision is the time to cut out loose ends. It can mean chapters. It can mean characters. It means cutting anything that isn’t a part of the story you’re telling.
Condensing is similar to cutting. You’re removing words and scene sections by making them shorter. For example, once the purpose of scenes is clear like, ‘this scene shows that they’re friends,’ or ‘this scene shows how dangerous the virus is’ you can sharpen the scenes to match the purpose. When you return to these scenes, the unnecessary elements tend to stick out. Simplify the narrative wherever you can and it will make for better drama.
5) Narrative Structure Exists for a Reason
Narrative structures are a tried and true method for engaging readers. Beginning, middle, and end. Think of it as answering these questions for the reader—‘why should I care?’, ‘where is this going?’, and ‘was it worth it?’ These simple questions anchor what your reader is ultimately after—an enjoyable read.
Piles of books have been written about story structure, but don’t let it put you off. At the end of the day it’s just one person telling another person a story. Nothing more. You don’t have to earn a creative writing degree to be a successful author.
Thinking about narrative structures gives you a handle on pacing. It can help you keep progress and put benchmarks for where the story should shift. It’s an element to organize your work and steer it. Not everyone finds planning ahead like this helpful, but it is a tried and tested method for increasing narrative quality. If you can’t answer the question, ‘where’s my beginning, middle, and end?’ then you have work to do.
6) Make them Hash it Out
Don’t leave open conflict on the table. Use it all. Unless you have plans on a sequel, any major conflict should be resolved before the end of your story. When a major conflict isn’t addressed by the last page, readers notice it and remember it. It can make them feel cheated.
Writing ‘hashing it out’ scenes in a satisfying way can be one the most difficult things to write. The imagination is pushed to new places. The characters (and sometimes the writer) are all out of their comfort zones—which is why these scenes can be the most memorable and the most raw. On some level, you owe it to your readers to address the conflicts your story has created. They expect you to clean up your own story messes. Again, writing these parts of your story will not be easy, but they will be highly rewarding for your reader. They are the kind of things that will make them want to ride on the roller coaster of your narrative one more time.
7) Stick the Landing
Make the end worth the journey. You and your reader both put a lot of time into your book. The end matters just as much as the beginning—even if fewer readers reach it. Poor endings will sit with readers longer since the ending is the last impression made on them. ‘Blah’ endings make for a ‘blah’ reviews and ‘blah’ recommendations.
What makes a great ending?
Some writers suggest writing the end first. There’s merit to this approach. It makes your bullseye already in the center of the target. Rather than a weak ending where you circle some stopping point you’ve hit and call it a day, you’ve constructed something with a clean trajectory, something built for maximum impact.
Whatever process you use, you need to conclude the main conflict of the story totally. If the main question of the story is “who is Sandra’s mother?’ then you will need to not only give the answer but also show why answering it took so long. The conclusion to your story may involve revelations, but you should avoid involving brand new characters who produce new information or solve protagonists’ difficulties. We’ve all experienced bad endings and know how we felt when we read them. You don’t have to write a weak ending. Take the time and effort required for a stellar ending. It’s worth it.