Drama vs Drama

August 30, 2016 § 14 Comments


Hamlet realizes his story is not “my dad was murdered” but instead, “I will find out who killed my dad and punish them.”

Many of us write a memoir or a personal essay after, around, or during a dramatic event in our lives. Cancer. Death of a loved one. Running a marathon. Climbing Everest. And many memoirs and essays remain unpublished because a dramatic event isn’t enough.

Think about it–any newspaper front page is covered in dramatic situations, worthy of reporting but mostly conveying information. The emotional reaction of the reader is grounded in their own experience meeting the facts, rather than empathy for the protagonist, or a desire to see them “win.”

Car Crash Claims Three

is a dramatic situation. It’s not a dramatic journey unless the reporter goes for a larger picture, and the larger picture has to include a protagonist taking a dramatic action.

Crash Claims Three: Earnhardt Jr. Vows to Race Again

Crash Claims Three: Candidate Introduces Traffic-cam Bill

Where memoirists often get stuck is finding their own dramatic action. The situation felt incredibly dramatic while we were in it, because we were navigating the hundred small actions it took to get through every day. But in retrospect, what do they all add up to?

By figuring out the dramatic action within a story, writers can answer the “So what?” question–what should a reader get from this beyond an awareness of my personal life? This allows the writer to create a dramatic structure more compelling than the tragedy/triumph of the event itself. Their own story does the work, instead of the reader’s personal connection to the larger situation. For example, it is very, very difficult to write about the Holocaust as memoir–there’s so much inherent drama in the event itself that a writer will have a very hard time telling a smaller, more personal journey without being overshadowed by the actual events.

One of the reasons The Diary of a Young Girl works is that it’s not really about the Holocaust–it’s about a bunch of people forced to live in a small space and try to get along, from the perspective of a young girl coming of age. Anne Frank mentions very little about the events happening in the Netherlands and Europe around her–only the direct impact on her daily life. It’s much more dramatic to hear that Miep couldn’t get in today to bring food from the perspective of a hungry person, and fill in the horrors to come ourselves, than to be told how dreadful the Nazis are. We already know that part.

If one is, say, an abused child, that sucks. But the hard cold reality is that abused children have already been written about by some of the best writers in the world. Even our own honesty can be undermined by the subject of child abuse in general–no matter how bad we’ve had it, someone’s read worse in Readers’ Digest. We’d better be a damn good writer to have anything new to say about abused children at all, plus the perspective to tell a story rather than recount an experience. Stories have larger points beyond “this happened to me.” Those larger points are what allow the reader who hasn’t experienced the same event to bond with the protagonist and want to be on this journey with them.

When figuring out one’s own dramatic journey, it can be useful to ask if the dramatic event is the climax of the story, the kickoff, or the antagonist. Running a marathon could be the end of a triumphant journey, an incitement to a new way of life, or the condition of physical hardship that keeps the narrator working toward a larger goal. Knowing the place of the dramatic event guides the writer to examine their own journey: What led me to this event? What did this event start me doing? How did I navigate this event?

If your essay or memoir were a movie, what’s the summary you’d tell someone to get them to watch it with you? Chances are it’s not “cancer,” or “Everest” or “running a marathon.” It’s the story of what you did after, or to get there, or along the way.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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