I don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, lodged there.
Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”
When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. For example, suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back to her. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back in the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”
It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama exponentially. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her family by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank has just repossessed her car! Poor Mary.
Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.
The fiction writer builds sympathy for Mary by watching her react to events that might have crushed the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her reacting by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.
For the writer, the great thing about adding more tension to our story is that it makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!
ABOUT ASHLEY: Through a little intuition but mostly blind luck, Ashley Memory has twice won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination for her fiction. But it wasn’t until she delved deeply into the short stories she’d admired for years that she unlocked their winning formula. Using the techniques described in this class, Ashley wrote a story that won 1st Place in the 2019 Starving Writer’s Contest and appeared in County Lines: A Literary Journal. Through the years, her short stories and flashes have appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Cairn, Women on Writing, Carolina Woman, and numerous anthologies.
STUDY WITH ASHLEY: Ashley Memory leads the new Short Story Studio, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.