A guest post from Derek Neale, Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Open University:

Derek NealeThis is the first in a short series of blogs I’ll be writing about how drama can improve your fiction, each containing an activity for you to try at home.

‘Dramatise! Dramatise!’ was Henry James’ famous maxim to himself and to would-be novelists – and it remains true today. Your storytelling can gain momentum and finesse from looking at how dramatists do things.

More often than not a character’s emotional state is better revealed by being shown in action, rather than the narrator saying ‘he was sad’ or ‘she was angry’. The reader is happier interpreting what characters do, rather than forever being told what is happening.

Drama can inject the vital ingredient that will bring a story alive. I know this from my own writing and from the work of my students. And in most cases dramatising doesn’t mean adding fast-action sequences or melodramatic set-pieces – the key is to tighten the dramatic scenes that are already in the story.

The way scenes move the narrative along in fiction is very similar to the way in which scenes work in the dramatic media. The action of a story takes place in a particular place at a particular time – say, in a restaurant on a Tuesday evening. When place or time change, the scene changes. So when we next encounter our main character, talking on the phone in her kitchen on Wednesday morning, we have moved to a new scene.

Try imagining film versions of the scenes in your story. The restaurant scene, for instance, might start with the dessert and end before the bill is paid. The camera would only stay in the restaurant long enough to convey the important story information.

The tendency with fiction is for scenes to dawdle (yes, let’s be honest, in our first drafts especially). With this in mind, I set myself and my students a checklist about scenes:

  • Are time and place clearly established?

  • What are the key elements of the story the reader needs from this scene?

  • Does the scene start in the right place, or is there too much of a preamble, with characters arriving in dribs and drabs?

  • Does the scene end in the right place, or is the narrator waiting for all the teacups or wine glasses to be drained before moving on?

  • What is the momentum I want from the way this scene ends?

By thinking of the way scenes operate in film, on stage – and even in radio drama – you are more likely to intrigue your reader and make them want to read on.

Creative Writing HandbookAbout Derek: Derek Neale is a fiction writer and dramatist, and is editor and co-author of A Creative Writing Handbook: developing dramatic technique, individual style and voice (A&C Black, 2009). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at The OU. Some of his conversations with novelists, playwrights and screenwriters are available at interviews with writers (tracks 1-10), or at OU podcasts.

Unfortunately Derek cannot answer individual questions, but he'll be posting further writing exercises in upcoming months.