Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Yes indeed, “catch the conscience,” but how does one do that?
Conflict creates drama. We can define conflict as two or more forces in opposition. The applicable definition of drama would be any conflicting situation causing emotional or tragic impact or consequences. I’m not trying to make it sound simple, but we need to find or create fascinating characters and put them in conflict with other fascinating characters. The more forceful the characters and greater the conflict, the better the drama.
This guest post is by Terry Jastrow. Jastrow is an Emmy Award winning Producer and/or Director of some of the world’s greatest events over the last 30 years, including The Super Bowl XIX and six Olympic Games. Jastrow is also a Novelist, Screenwriter, Playwright and Film & Theater Director. His new novel, The Trial of Prisoner 043, released on August 1, 2017. For more information, please visit http://www.terryjastrow.com/ and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
We see characters in conflict yielding drama in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—the Montagues versus the Capulets, Romeo and Juliet versus their parents, and Romeo versus Tybalt. For more modern examples, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and its Hulu miniseries, is chock full of excellent examples—most especially Offred versus Serena Joy.
Don’t consider that just because a topic is interesting, it is dramatic. Interesting items are usually only of passive or parenthetical value to the reader. When the story is dramatic, it engages the reader’s organic, visceral participation, and he or she becomes personally involved—that’s exactly what readers crave. So, interesting is for textbooks and newspapers; drama is for books.
Okay, so where do we find content that yields drama?
There are three primary sources for content: the author’s knowledge, interviews with others to seek information and insight, and research. For me, the most fun and fruitful is research.
My just-published novel, The Trial of Prisoner 043, took three and a half years of research and writing to complete. Here’s how I approached the writing process:
When I conceived a story that fascinated me and that I thought would fascinate others, I dove into research. In all, I read more than twenty books—books on the International Criminal Court and international law, biographies and autobiographies written by most of the principal characters, and two excellent books on the Iraq War: one by Bob Woodward and the other by Michael Isikoff and David Corn.
I made three research trips to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where I studied the physical layout of the courtroom, observed protocol and procedure, and met with both prosecuting and defense attorneys—usually for breakfast or lunch in the ICC commissary or a late-night dinner at one of the excellent pubs in The Hague.
As part of my narrative takes place at the International Criminal Court, I screened movies considered to be the best courtroom dramas: 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Verdict, and A Few Good Men.
Among the many rewards from research is the enhanced ability to create unique, colorful, nuanced, and impassioned characters and insight into dialogue that, when inspired by the actual people, is nearly always better than an author could conjure up.
Running in parallel with reading books, researching international criminal law, and screening movies, I also took online courses. The website MasterClass offers excellent online courses that are well produced, informative, and reasonably entertaining. My two favorites were “James Patterson Teaches Writing” and “Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting.” The most specifically applicable online course for my project was “Introduction to International Criminal Law,” created by Case Western Reserve University, expertly taught by professor Michael Scharf, and offered by Courseca. As with most online courses, the quizzes at the end of each chapter are fairly easy to ace, but I had to take Scharf’s class a second time to pass.
Additionally, I hired international criminal law experts in Europe and the United States to consult with me along the way and read progressive drafts of the manuscript. With regard to international criminal law, our goal was to be accurate so the book would not be dismissed as inaccurate and therefore implausible. When international criminal law experts on both sides of the Atlantic read the final draft, they deemed it to be word perfect.
Here’s another thought for your search for content. Earlier in my life I had the good fortune of working with legendary executive producer of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, who produced the multiple award winning ABC’s Wide World of Sports. You may remember the series opening: “Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of sports; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; the human drama of athletic competition.” For four decades viewers were treated to sublime storytelling that focused on one or more of three elements: man against an opponent, man against known obstacles, and most importantly, man against himself. In my novel, I endeavored to portray each, and I suggest writers of all genres could benefit from mining these same fertile arenas.
Finally on an esoteric note, I do not consider writing to be labor or a job. I consider it an art, and I write as a poet, composer, painter, or sculptor engages in the joy of artistic creation mainly for the love of it.
As you may have gathered, the above is not so much about the mechanics of writing as it is about relishing in the experience of gathering story elements, depicting unique characters, and communicating something dramatic—and hopefully compelling—to the one person that matters most in all art: the consumer.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.