Alfred Hitchcock once said “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” I think recent trends in film and literature have solidly proven him correct. Just think of all those big-production action movies that have been coming out, or most of the ‘thriller’ genre of literature as a whole.
Both hinge on easy-to-recognize archetypal characters. Often, the most you are shown of the unique quiddities of the characters are a few short personality traits (she chain-smokes, he’s a drunk, she was abused as a child, his daughter died, etc…) that will be used later in the story to reveal a motivation.
After that, it’s just action, action, action. Life with the dull bits cut out. Who cares if the heroin loves Rachmaninoff? Or if the hero is a hobbyist astronomer.
If it doesn’t further motivations, or significantly add to the story’s symbology, it’s ‘dull.’
So, then, what about this quote:
“… I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.”
– John D MacDonald, The Deep Blue Goodbye
There’s nothing here that’s not ‘dull.’ It’s a litany. And yet, you can’t help reading forward, wanting to see what crazy thing MacDonald’s character, Travis McGee, will throw suspicion on next.
This is dramatic litany. How can these sentences, written in a pulpy gentlemen’s thriller-novel from the 60s, be so dramatic and yet Hitchcock’s rule-of-thumb about drama still be correct?
I believe Drama is more complex, more deeply layered, more psychological than it currently is purported to be by the genre ‘Thriller.’
Simple, powerful, poignant characters and plots with twists are excellent storytelling. But I believe there’s another way to make a marvelously thrilling novel. A way that relies on the quiddities and contradictions inherent in the characters. A way that relies on burrowing into the psyche of the reader, and then provoking it.
Call it Anti-Drama. Writing that breaks typical forms and rules, that shouldn’t work, but does. Writing which could be called dull, or prolonged, or pointless, but which when read provokes a deep response.
I like litany. I like dull. I like the slow-burn novel that you never quite trust, but keep coming back to.
MacDonald was famous for writing novels that started with very little happening, but which you nonetheless couldn’t put down. When you finally got to the action you were hooked.
When you read a story like that, it’s magic.
Write a dramatic thriller. A hot mystery. And when your reader least expects it, throw in some Anti-Drama. If you do it right, they’ll remember it forever.