TO WRITE A GREAT STORY A WRITER MUST USE DRAMATIC DEVICES!
The Seven Main Dramatic Techniques for You to Use
By Scott McConnell
Telling a good story is much more than just organizing a series of interesting chronological events. Skilled fiction writers use a variety of dramatic devices to make their stories much more attractive and emotional for their audiences. Following is a brief discussion of (arguably) the top seven dramatic techniques that all storytellers should be considering using if not actually using in their stories. Essential to some of these dramatic techniques is how the writer “gives” (or in one case doesn’t give) information to the audience to inspire specific thoughts, ideas and emotions in them.
The most important principle in writing fiction is “The essence of drama is conflict.” A conflict (simply) is two people clashing over opposing goals. A story needs a central conflict to form the core of its plot and to underpin its structure. Everything in a story should logically flow from its central conflict. A central conflict is often focused on the key back-and-forth escalating struggle between a Character A and a Character B. No one wants to watch a boxing match where the two opponents never engage to trade blows back and forth. Likewise, no viewer wants to watch a story where there is no long-term struggle between clearly motivated opposing characters. Goals, conflict, struggle, story!
There must be conflict throughout the whole of a story, from those against the protagonist’s big goals to those against his objectives in the smallest scenes. It is conflict more than anything that makes a story and seduces an audience.
One vital type of conflict is internal conflict. Internal conflict is where a character is torn between two high values and must make hard choices between them, especially a big final choice in the climax of the story. Great dramas especially do this. Some of the most intense dramas in literature with a lead character struggling with a high stakes self-conflict are Les Miserables (Jean Valjean), Atlas Shrugged (Dagny Taggart), Cyrano de Bergerac (Cyrano), The Lady From the Sea (Ellida Wangel), and Enemy of the People (Dr. Stockmann.) In film, classic dramas focused on characters with dramatic internal conflicts include The Miracle Worker, In The Heat of the Night, Saving Mr. Banks, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In Les Miserables, as just one key example, throughout much of the novel its protagonist Jean Valjean is torn between his love for his own freedom and his desire to do justice for the oppressed of France. Throughout this intensely dramatic story the reader becomes fully engaged to see what choices Valjean will make and what their consequences will be.
Audiences enjoy being held in suspense about the outcome of a major conflict (or choice) they are witnessing in a story. Good writers manipulate the emotions of an audience by the way they play their story events. Arguably, the key way writers manipulate an audience is through creating a feeling of suspense in them. To create suspense, writers play their conflicts and events so that the audience will ask big questions about them. Questions such as: What will happen next? Who will win? What will result from this awful choice? What will the character do when he learns this?
Every story needs (at least) one big suspense question that pulls the audience into the events because they are manipulated to feel hungry to learn the outcome of this suspense question. The major way writers do this is to carefully develop a suspense line about the protagonist’s main goal and its biggest conflict/problem. Viewers, for example, will then anxiously watch the whole film to find out who wins or loses and how and why. For instance, the key suspense question in the film Die Hard is: Will John McLane rescue his wife to safety? In Saving Mr. Banks, it is: Will P. L. Travers change so she can accept Walt Disney’s offer to produce her Mary Poppins book as a film?
Mystery works in the opposite way to suspense.
With suspense the audience is given some information about a high stakes conflict/choice in the story but doesn’t know the resolution of it but desires to learn it. In contrast, when a writer plays a mystery, he often gives the resolution but keeps hidden important information about its meaning or cause so the audience hungers to learn it. For example, Agatha Christie gives you the murder but not who the murderer is.
To create a mystery line, writers must set up an important mystery question in the minds of the audience and carefully work out what important story information the audience will and won’t be told (though some characters might know it). And then later in the story the writer has to logicallyand dramatically (and often deceptively) reveal clues that the audience could use to solve the mystery. An audience will thus stay watching, yearning to receive more clues about the mystery so they can work it out themselves before the main character does or the author reveals it.
Often the mystery questions the writer plays relate to What, Who, How and Why. When a writer manipulates a reader or viewer about vital information (ideas) they desire to learn, the specific emotion (and itch) these questions create is curiosity. A writer especially skilled at putting mystery questions into the minds of his audience sets up a mystery that seems impossible to solve. A mystery at this level can be more seductive and emotional to an audience than a big suspense question. Agatha Christie is especially brilliant at doing this. A more modern classic example is the intense mystery in the novel The Visitor by Lee Child. In film, in Saving Mr. Banks, we long to know what is the deepest reason why P. L. Travers is rejecting Walt Disney’s offer. In the climax of the film, Disney and the audience get the last clue to Travers’ motivation and can finally solve and understand this big mystery. And now Disney can succeed in his quest and the audience can have a strong emotional response to that and the resolution of the mystery.
A twist or surprise is a change or development in the story that the audience was not expecting. Audiences love to be surprised and shocked. But not too often and always logically. That is, the surprise or twist has to be set up but not noticed by the audience. When the surprise is revealed, the information in its set up that was hidden will be remembered by the audience, who will now understand it in a different context that will make the twist believable. Twists knock the story and audience into new and exciting territories and are often employed at the end of sequences, acts and chapters. But a twist shocks and grabs an audience for only a short time. Then suspense and mystery again need to take over the audience’s thoughts and emotions until the next twist or surprise.
Besides big twists, writers should also employ smaller surprises in their scenes, especially during their climaxes. This is also important in comedies, where the climax of a joke often entails a twist.
Dramatic Irony/Superior Position
Dramatic irony or superior position is when the audience is given story information that a character doesn’t so it sees great irony, humour and danger where this character does not. For instance, Hitchcock’s classic example of suspense, the ticking bomb under the seat of two unaware characters, is partly based on superior position. Because we the audience see the great danger of the ticking bomb and the characters don’t, we scream at them to look down! To run! We are gripped in suspense watching this terror play out, and for a long period of time. A shock lasts seconds. Audience suspense and fear created by watching a danger revealed to it by superior position can last many minutes, even hours. Superior position is a fundamental way Hitchcock played with our minds so effectively in his films.
Consider from The Godfather another example of suspense based on superior position, when we are let in on the plan of Michael Corleone to kill the crooked cop McCluskey (and the gangster Sollozo). We watch with tight breath to see how this revealed plan will play out when enacted against the dangerous cop who might uncover the secret and kill Michael.
Dramatic irony can also create great poignancy and humour. For example, it can be employed in a love story where we know a male character loves a woman but she doesn’t know it. In The Mark of Zorro, for instance, we enjoy the poignancy of the scenes between Zorro and Lolita, who he is secretly in love with. Or, regarding comedic effect, in the same film we are amused by the sly digs and games of Don Diego Vega against the villains who do not know that this playacting fop is actually their dangerous enemy Zorro. But we do!
Dramatic irony again plays on the conceit of what the audience is told.
One of the best and least used dramatic devices is deception. Deception is when one character hides important information from another. Deception can take various forms. It can be a disguise, a lie, a secret, a con, a cheat, or a hidden betrayal, for example. Note that deception often involves dramatic irony, where the audience and often a character knows the truth but other characters don’t. Knowing the deception, the audience enjoys all the consequent irony, danger and humour. And the audience can be in suspense as to when and how the deceived will learn of the deception. To study classic examples of deception and its dramatic power watch Zorro, Superman, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Les Miserables, and Notorious. Deception is an excellent way to add layers to your characters, story and scenes. Consider what the Batman, Superman and Zorro stories would be like if these costumed heroes did not have secret identities?
The most sophisticated dramatic technique in this list is implication. And one of the most powerful. Implication (and suggestion) are when a storyteller writes in a subtle way and doesn’t state the explicit meaning of the words or action. Instead, the meaning is implied in the words and actions and by their context. Here are two brief examples of suggestion (actions) and implication (words):
First action. Consider the early scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence extinguishes a burning match with his fingers without expressing pain. The context of the story helps make this action more dramatic than any words could: Lawrence, who is yet to go on his great adventure, is showing us: I’m a little bit mad (“barmy”) and I can endure great pain to do great things. This idea shocks and excites us and makes us want to see if this strange but seemingly brilliant man can succeed in a great quest. The audience was not told these ideas but had to induce them from the actions.
And dialog. Consider the climax of the classic (1958) film Separate Tables written by a master of implication, Terence Rattigan. In a retirement hotel during the climax of the story, spinster Sybil is eating breakfast with her domineering elderly mother, who we have seen during the film bullying and oppressing her daughter. After the mother tells Sybil to leave the dining room with her, the daughter replies with these simple words: “No, Mummy. I’m going to stay here in the dining room, and finish my breakfast.”
Because during the story we have been shown so well the essential nature of the relationship between daughter and mother, we understand that these words are the very first time Sybil has disagreed with her evil mother and that they are her liberation from her. Understanding this meaning of Sybil’s words, we feel great emotion. We feel stronger emotions because these words were so implicit that we had to be complicit with them to work out their exact meaning and thus are more intimately involved in the drama and emotionally responsive to it. As a dramatic principle, when an audience is more mentally involved in a story, it is more emotionally moved by it. All good storytellers use implication! And again, it works from how information or ideas are given to an audience to influence its mind.
If you are not considering using all the above dramatic devices in your stories, then you are not doing your full job as a writer. Storytelling is not just the What but also the How. This How entails putting ideas into the minds of your audience to manipulate their thinking and emotions. This is key to how writers make their audience feel. We don’t experience literature or films to be bored. We experience them to think and feel strongly. One hallmark of good writers is that they imaginatively use dramatic devices. If you do that, then your story will be much more seductive and emotional. And much more popular.
Scott McConnell is a story developer and editor who helps writers, producers, and novelists apply dramatic devices in their stories. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org To receive his free newsletter of writing tips, subscribe here.