Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.42: Elemental Drama as a Sub-Genre

Focusing on elemental drama can be tricky. Remember, elemental drama is basically “character change.” A great many stories use character change in some way—it’s almost ubiquitous. In this episode we’ll pick at the ubiquity, and look at the many different ways in which character change can be featured, and what sort of tools we have at our disposal to make this happen in our stories.

Homework: Take two scenes, each with a different conflict—a logistical one, and an emotional one—and blend them into a single scene.

Thing of the week: Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal, narrated by the author. In two weeks, Episode 11.44 will be a Project In Depth on this book, so if you want to do the homework, now’s a good time to start.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Drama means character change. It’s a basic component of a compelling story. How you introduce the conflict helps to distinguish between primary genre and subgenre. Often subgenres are short, poignant shifts, in one scene. Why add them? Because readers connect with drama, with the emotional impact. How do you add it? Think about who the character wants to be, and their fatal flaw. That gives you an internal struggle that you can manifest in external conflicts. Also consider having the character be mistaken about what they need, and discover what they really need. Subtle moments, like turning off the targeting computer, can be wonderful moments of subgenre drama. Watch for the don, don, don moments! Make sure your character earns those moments, don’t just play the music and expect cheers.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 42.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Drama As Subgenre.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re on a ship.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon on a ship.
[Mary] I’m Mary on a ship.
[Dan] I’m Dan, at least near the ship.
[Howard] And I’m Howard, on way too much caffeine.

[Brandon] So, we are here on the Writing Excuses Cruise 2016…
[Brandon] And we are extremely excited. We’re going to have a load of guest stars over the next few episodes, so look forward to that. Today, it’s just us warming up as we talk about drama as subgenre. Which, as I considered it, I thought might be one of the hardest ones to talk about, because every story has drama as a subgenre. So how do we even approach this? How do we talk about it, when it’s basically just yes, this is every story ever written?
[Mary] Well, it’s not.
[Dan] Very quick, in case anyone is listening to this episode didn’t listen to the last one. When we say drama, what we mean really is character change. Main character changing over time.
[Mary] Yeah. Which is why I’m like, “No, Brandon. You’re wrong.”
[Brandon] I’m wrong.
[Mary] Sherlock Holmes does not contain drama.
[Brandon] Okay. The new Sherlock Holmes does. The original Sherlock Holmes does not. You are correct.
[Mary] Ah, hah! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
[Brandon] Most James Bond stories do not. A lot of these kind of primal persons solving problems, they don’t have a lot of change over time.
[Mary] However, we are using those just as a way to define the difference between stories that do not contain drama as a subgenre in order to look at the ones that do contain drama as subgenre.
[Dan] Well, I think Sherlock Holmes is a great example to look at. Because the original ones, the focus was on the mystery or whatever subgenre we’re looking at. Whatever elemental genre, mystery, thriller. The modern ones still have that, and they still primarily are mysteries, but they’re also very interested in his character. They want to give him these specific traits and they want to watch as he reacts. I think that, for the most part, looking at both of the modern Sherlock series, they’ve done a pretty good job by establishing here is his problem and here are the ways the people around him react to that, and let’s watch him deal with it.

[Brandon] Uhum. So let’s talk about that, then. Drama as subgenre. This is something I look to put in almost every longer work that I write. Because a character change is a basic component of a compelling story. It’s not the only thing that makes a story compelling, but how you do this without having it overshadow the main plot… Sherlock, let’s look at that. These are primary relationship/mysteries.
[Mary] I think one thing to look at is that one of the ways that you can signal to an audience that it is a subgenre rather than a primary genre is when you introduce that conflict. When we’re talking about the issues in a story, it’s not the order in which they happen on a timeline, it’s the order in which the audience becomes aware of it. So if we would begin with… Using Sherlock still as our example, if we begin with dead body on the floor, that signals to the audience our primary driver is going to be mystery. Then, if we introduce the conflict between Holmes and Watson is whether or not Holmes is capable of being a good friend, that is our secondary driver. We might invest more in that because we really like the two characters, depending on how far we are into it, but it’s a way of signaling to the audience kind of which one is going to be the major driver, and what sort of ride we’re in for.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] One of my favorite episodes of Elementary is the one in which Holmes, at the end of the episode, must confess to the police chief that he has been an addict and has been in rehab and it’s something that he was hiding. The police chief’s response is, “Well, I knew that. I figured you’d tell me about it as soon as you were ready. I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to not do my homework.” But the moment where Holmes humbles himself and apologizes and says that was wonderful. For the entire episode, we’ve been worried about Holmes’s actual physical health because he’s been kidnapped. Oh, what’s going to happen? But this secondary crisis was every bit as important and far more poignant.
[Mary] Well, that’s a really good example as well, that when we say you’re using something as a subgenre, it doesn’t have to be a major secondary driving plot. It can be something that comes up just in a scene. Just a pivot point for the character. It doesn’t have to be… Doesn’t necessarily have to be something that is a through line all the way through the story.

[Brandon] All right. So let me ask you this. What does it add? Why are you going to be doing this as a subgenre? I think it’s an obvious question, perhaps, but I want to pitch it to you because we started out by talking about successful stories that don’t do it. Isaac Asimov would be another good example. A lot of his short stories are not about character change. They are about interacting with the technology. These were very successful stories. So why would you add this?
[Dan] Well, so with the John Cleaver books… There are six of them. It’s split into two trilogies. My goal with book 1, and then again with book 4, to kick off both trilogies, was to introduce the character and get you to know who he is. And neither of those books, he really changes very much. There about how his weird personality and his mental illness cause him to interact with the world. Then in the next books, I add in the drama because they are about him trying to become a better person. Almost without question, people’s favorite books are the later ones, rather than the two that kick off a trilogy. Because they connect with the character more.
[Brandon] If I’m going to put you on the spot, one really good thing you’ve done with both of those is, I feel like at the end of the first one of the three, you give some hook or indication at the end, that John is in a darker place than he’s been and he’s… You are worried that the next book is going to be a downwards spiral for him. In fact, the beginning of the second book of the first trilogy is a big downward spiral for a little while. This… I like this ending of the first book as we are going to add this as a subgenre now to prepare you for the next book where it will be a major driving force.
[Howard] Another good example of drama as subgenre is in the Miles Vorkosigan novel Mirror Dance in which the novel opens and we have this sense of our hero, Miles, and the things… The changes that he has undergone and the changes he is looking forward to undergoing, and then our inciting incident in Act I is him dying. He’s shot in the chest and his last thought is, “But wait. I haven’t…” I gasped, and realized but I want him to change. I want him to get to do those things. I don’t care that he’s dead. I mean, I care that he’s dead, I care that these things aren’t going to happen. There’s a piece of that story, there’s this drama that I wanted to watch unfold, and now I don’t get to.
[Dan] Well, I think that’s a big part of it, is the emotion that comes from that. Someone being dead is sad because of all the things that they don’t get to do anymore, and because of all the interactions they don’t get to have. So focusing on that emotional aspect that comes from the drama gives weight to the other things that happen in the story.
[Mary] I think a lot of that is also related to the relationship that we have with the character. One of the things that I talk about when I’m talking to people actually about branding and trying to figure out…
[Brandon] Me?
[Howard] That joke never gets old.
[Mary] Yeah. It’s a…
[Brandon] I know you just spend most of your time talking to people about me.
[Mary] It’s true. Is it true, audience? I’ve been talking…
[Yeah… laughter]
[Brandon] You just made the album.
[Mary] Bu… When… Like… When you’re talking about branding, if you’re…
[Mary] When you’re talking about branding and coffee…
[Howard] When you’re talking about building a brand.
[Mary] Thank you. I just like watching him giggle, which the… Only people with the video feed can see.
[Brandon] That’s right. If you are not benefiting from the video feed…
[Mary] But, like, for those of you who drink coffee, you’ve got your favorite coffee shop, and you go to that coffee shop, not because of the coffee. The coffee is the main genre. You go to the coffee shop because of the subgenre, which is your relationship with the barrista. That… Having any place that you’re a regular and they recognize you when you come in… You’re there because of the subgenre. I think that that is also true with fiction, that one of the things that happens, if you can have a character that is going through change, is that that empathy and that connection to the character, that relationship that you as the reader form with the character, gives you a greater hook and tie-in to the main genre. Because you want to see them succeed. The same way you want to see a friend or anyone else that you have a relationship succeed with. It gets also back to that thing Cory Doctorow was talking about, last season or two seasons ago, about hacking your brain which we talk about a lot now. That it’s a way of taking the empathy that we have and using it as a tool to basically connect the reader more strongly to the story. In part because what happens is that we can cathartically experience things through the character’s growth.

[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I really like where this is going, but I need to stop it for a minute to talk about our book of the week, which is a very important book of the week, because it is Ghost Talkers.
[Brandon] So.
[Mary] This is the best audience.
[Brandon] Why don’t you tell us about Ghost Talkers, Mary?
[Mary] All right. So Ghost Talkers is a novel what I wrote.
[Mary] It is set during the Great War. It’s 1916, the Battle of the Somme. The British Intelligence Department has connected with a group of mediums and has established something called the Spirit Corps. So when soldiers die, they are conditioned to report in. The British Intelligence Department is getting instant troop updates from their ghosts. When the book starts, we learn that there is a traitor and that the Germans are trying to figure out what’s going on. Things go downhill from there.
[Brandon] The book is awesome. I read it… I actually listened to it. By Mary. If you guys have never listened to Mary read one of her books to you, an audiobook, it is incredible. Because she does great voices and all this stuff, but it’s also like your friend Mary…
[Brandon] Reading you a bedtime story. It’s really cool.
[Howard] Ghost Talkers is not a bedtime story.
[Brandon] Oh, it is.
[Brandon] It is if you like creepy stuff. I really loved the book. In fact, we are going to be doing a Project-In-Depth on Ghost Talkers, which is why we wanted to promote it this week. Because next week, we’ll be doing a Q&A about drama, then the week after is a Project-In-Depth. So this is your spoiler warning for two weeks from now. We are going to go and dig into this book and how Mary wrote it and all of that nitty-gritty stuff. You will want to have read the book by then.
[Mary] Cause there are giant ass spoilers that we are totally going to talk about.
[Brandon] That is very true. So this is your warning. Book of the week is Ghost Talkers, and in two weeks, we are going to do Project-In-Depth on it.

[Brandon] All right. So. As usual, I want to talk more about the writing side in the second half of the podcast. I want to talk about how to do this. Specifically, how do you prepare for a character journey? How do you… When you’re building your plot, you’ve got your main story, you’re like, “I want each character…” At least this is what I do. I want each character to change a little bit during the course of the story. How do you decide how they are going to change? How do you make that happen through the course of the book? How do you go about it?
[Mary] I think about it in terms of who the character wants to be. Like, we all have an idea of who our perfect self is. There is usually something within ourselves that is inconsistent with that perfect self. My fatal flaw is vanity. Which anyone who’s spent any time with me can spot.
[Brandon] Mine is pride. You wouldn’t have been able to figure that out, would you?
[Mary] No, no, no.
[Mary] I wonder why. How about you guys?
[Howard] Mine is awesome.
[Brandon] You’re really good at that question when they asked you your worst flaw during an interview, huh?
[Dan] I’m just too awesome, and everyone else will feel bad.… That’s… Doesn’t work. He stole mine.
[Howard] Delivery.
[Dan] My fatal flaw is being later than Howard.
[Brandon] No, no. Mary wasn’t done yet.
[Mary] But the point being that this gives you a point of dissatisfaction for the character. What is the thing about themselves that they find lacking? Then, that gives me an opportunity to challenge them on those points. And find ways in which the plot highlights that fatal flaw. It also gives the character on internal struggle that they want to overcome. That, I think for me, is one of the key things about these drama things, is that it is about an internal struggle with the character that then manifests in an external way.
[Brandon] That’s brilliant. I love that. The thing… Oh. Go ahead, Howard.
[Howard] Building on that real quick, long ago one of the audio engineering principles I learned was the customer always knows when there’s a problem, but never knows what the solution is. Having a character who… I know what their fatal flaw is, their opinion of how they need to change in order to reach their perfect self often needs to be wrong, so that they can have a moment of discovery where they realize that the solution they’ve been driving for is actually the problem. They’ve been pushing in the wrong way. Those moments are some of the most wonderful, because, for me, those are the moments that are the most like my real life. When you wake up and realize, “Oh, this person I’ve been trying to be does not exist by virtue of me doing this over and over again. I need to change in a way that I didn’t expect.”

[Brandon] I love this as subgenre. In fact, I prefer this in most stories as subgenre because stories… I mean, we mentioned King Lear earlier on the first podcast about this. It’s a great story. It’s my favorite Shakespeare. You can’t go wrong with that. But, at the same time, if everything is about this character’s fatal flaw, sometimes it just gets dreary. It gets overwhelming. It gets preachy. But when it’s subgenre and a character’s learning something about themselves subtly as they go about this larger project… You learn something. Like I often bring up Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars when Luke turns off the targeting computer. Right? That’s been a very subtle thing. A lea… Luke learning to trust himself and trust in the Force. It’s becoming the call to adventure in the final moment where he’s like, “All right. I’m going to step up and accept the call to be a Jedi.” That’s the moment he does it. It is really subtle through the entire film. He turns it off. You cheer. You don’t even know why in some cases. It’s like the John Williams music. You’re like, “It’s cool music. I will cheer.” As you think about it, you’re like, “Oh. He said yes to being a Jedi right then.” I love that moment because it is so subtle.
[Howard] Let me point up something there. In the cinematic tradition, there are a whole bunch of tools that are being used there. The lighting, the angle, the music, in order to help sell that point. When you are writing a book, all you’ve got is the words. You’ve got the negative space between the words. I mean, you’ve got the shaping. But really, all you have is what you can enter in at the keyboard. When we talk in other podcasts about craft, and about the importance of learning some of these tricks, the ability to pull a John Williams score under your character moment at that point in your book, that’s going to grow out of having written a lotta lot of words.
[Brandon] See, you don’t have Dan standing behind you as you read saying, “BOM, bom, bom” whenever you get to a dramatic part? He does that to me.
[Dan] Some people do. That’s an extra service.
[Mary] I have to confess that sometimes when I am narrating…
[Mary] This is… You’ll hear this on some of the blooper reels I post. You will occasionally hear on one of the blooper reels, me go, “Don, don, don.”
[Mary] Because the writer whose work I am narrating has just landed one of those.
[Brandon] I was… I’m surprised in your books when I listen to them how evenly you can read those moments of huge impact and discovery, and not do a bom, bom, bom.
[Mary] Don, don, don.
[Mary] That’s because we edit them out.
[Dan] I actually say them while I write sometimes. I will do the don, don, don.
[Mary] But one of the things about that… This is slightly going off tangent, but it is related to the… How to make that relationship subgenre land is that if you hit it too hard, it’s like the movies that are over scored. The movies where the music swells and there is a…
[Brandon] Soft focus.
[Mary] Soft focus, and then the character comes out with this stupid, cheesy line that is badly delivered and they have not earned that moment. That is one of the things that when you’re writing, that when you have that moment where you want the… That emphasis to be there, that sometimes we feel like we have to hit it really, really hard. A lot of times, the answer is to pull back a little bit.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would agree.
[Dan] One of my favorite movies of all time is No Country for Old Men. Which has no score. There’s no music at all. Watching that, I’ve learned so much about how to deliver those moments honestly by seeing how they do it without relying on those special effects and the music.
[Brandon] That’s actually a really good point I’d never considered, is watching how… A lot of times commercials will do this and television shows and things. They’ll cheat. Or Internet shorts. Where they’re like, “Here’s the music. You should feel something.” I’m not there with them. I actually laugh at them at these moments.
[Mary] Saving Private Ryan made me actively angry because it made me cry and they did not earn it. I knew that what was happening was cinematic tricks. I’m like, “God… No!… Cursing”

[Brandon] We are out of time on this episode.
[Brandon] Mary ruined it. We’re going to run and cut it right there. We are going to give it back to Mary dangerously to give us some homework.
[Mary] All right. So. We have been talking about the ways in which a character’s internal conflict affects the people around them. What I want you to think about is your starting example is you know when you’re driving someplace and you’re having an intense car conversation about something really heavy while at the same time having to navigate. So you have two conflicts going on simultaneously. You have an emotional conflict and a logistical conflict. What I want you to do is, I want you to look at your manuscript and take two scenes that have different conflicts. One is emotional, and related to the character’s internal drama. The other is a logistical one. I want you to combine them so that things happen in the same scene in concert. Your character’s going to be bouncing back and forth between dealing with those two things. Their emotional state is going to affect the way they approach the logistical problems. So I want you to try to blend those two things to make that subgenre happen within a single scene.
[Brandon] Awesome. And our audience. You guys are awesome, too.
[Yay! Whistles]
[Brandon] Thank you guys so much. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.