Drama. Conflict. Surprise. It’s what we all want in our writing.
So when I recently revisited a very old novel draft of mine about a twelve-year-old girl corrupted by her career criminal father, I despaired over how flat it read.
At face value you might think such a story would have drama in spades. There’s grand theft, wiretapped phones, prison, betrayals and power reversals.
The story itself is inherently dramatic. Yet there’s nothing to tug the reader from one sentence to the next. The drama is not yet alive on the page.
Drama involves conflict.
And the standard advice for generating conflict goes something like this:
Give your character something to want passionately, throw some heavy hitting obstacles in his/her path and there you have it: conflict and, as a byproduct, drama.
Solid advice. Without conflict, you have no drama.
But conflict isn’t just about what happens in a story; it’s the contradictory responses it creates within the reader.
So what if instead of manufacturing conflict in the broad strokes of our work, via action and plot, we provoked conflict within the reader instead?
We can do this right on the sentence level, using contradiction as the lever.
Contradiction happens when two opposing ideas occupy the same space, and both are right. This creates conflict on the page, but more important, it complicates the reader’s reaction, creating an insatiable reader.
In my Writer Unleashed course, we examine our own contradictory responses to fictional characters. Why, for instance, in Andre Dubus’s story “The Killings” do we feel more sympathy for the murderer than for his victim? Can a character who does an abhorrent act simultaneously gain our admiration?
We’re often drawn to a story that’s disconcerting in a way that sneaks up on us. The author has orchestrated that response by consciously layering complexity, opposites, juxtapositions and paradox into his sentences.
Here’s a technique I learned years ago from Douglas Glover, one that I only recently fully grasped thanks to his brilliant essay, “The Drama of Grammar” in his book, Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing.
His essay drives home the point that we can create drama, mystery, and exciting juxtaposition right on the sentence level using what he calls a “but-construction.”
The idea is to take any declarative sentence and add a “but” at the end.
For example, take the opening line from Denis Johnson’s story, “Dundun”:
I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him
Look happens when Johnson adds a “but.”
but I was out of luck.
The “but” embeds conflict within the sentence. And it sets the story in motion.
Glover defines a but construction as “…any use of the conjunction “but” or synonym, also any functionally similar punctuation marks including line-breaks, in a sentence of a paragraph to set up an antithesis, surprise, reversal, contrast, paradox or comparison.”
Turn to any passage in a book you’re reading and you’re bound to see this in action.
Here’s an example from Elizabeth McCracken’s, Niagara Falls All Over Again, a novel rich in but constructions.
In the following passage, Mose describes the second time he meets his vaudeville partner Rocky, drawing contrasts between his stage persona and his private persona.
Said partner, I had thought, was a dark-haired clown in makeup up and baggy pants. A patsy. An overexcited fat man. I looked around the Busy Bee, and all I saw was a blond guy in a good suit, puffy from drink but handsome, who waved at me. Then he waved a little harder.
When people ask me what he was like, I always want to say the one thing they won’t believe: he was good looking. They have eyes these people, and they’ve seen the party in question plenty. Dark hair sticking up, sloppy fat, useless with this hands and feet, squeaky, breathless. With rare exceptions, if you wanted to make it in the movies you had to choose between funny and handsome: Fred Astaire and Stan Laurel could be brothers, but which one’s the heart-throb? Even a voice makes a difference in how good-looking you are, and Rocky’s real voice was knowing and slow. He could have made a living off of it, if things had gone differently. The stuff he colored his hair with washed out. (Rubbed off, too, I learned later. I was the one who told him to either dye it or give up: I was tired of finding boot-black on my good clothes.) He was handsome the way Babe Ruth was handsome, a combination of confidence and being glad to see you. A backslapping man. A handshaker. A kisser of babies and pretty girls.
Note the contradiction and contrasts built into the structure of the sentences.
Mose thought Rocky was a dark haired clown in makeup, “a patsy,” an “overexcited fat man.” But no, he’s a blond guy in a suit, and he’s waving at him. He’s fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless, but he’s also good-looking. He dyes his hair “boot black” for the stage. But off stage, he’s sandy-haired. He’s flirtatious, charming, a “kisser of babies and pretty girls. He’s puffy from drink, but handsome.
So there’s an implicit “he’s this, but he’s also that” woven throughout the passage.
The “but” creates what Glover calls mental drama “…the clash of ideas, motives, expectations and outcomes.” “It is the mental drama,” he says, “the element of surprise and mystery implicit in the plot of every sentence we write, that contributes to the feeling that a piece of prose is alive, and further contributes to that density of action, interest and delight which we expect from good writing.”
As a reader, this mental drama is irresistible.
And as the author, the “but” creates space for your story to breathe. Your imagination is forced to fill in that empty space. So you’re not just delivering a static statement: Rocky was fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless. You’re ushering in possibility, depth and surprise. But…he was a heartthrob. Conflict and drama right on the sentence level.
Go through something you’re working on. Take any declarative sentence (for example: It was raining.) and add the word “but” at the end. This two millimeter shift in your sentence can create conflict and drama, and may even help you shape the content of your story, spinning it in directions that surprise you.