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Anti-Drama, Drama’s Secret Weapon

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.’

Not Drama.

Cut it.

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.

Tintin, Layovers, Beautiful Beaches, and Bad Coffee

Life slowly began to seep back into the large, marble-floored airport terminal. Bleary eyed, I looked back up from the printed page of the book in my hands. The zamboni-esque floor vacuums were shuffling away down the hall; the next wave of leather-jacketed, laptop-case sporting, matte-brown shoe shod businessmen was trickling in from the TSA checkpoints.

4:30 am. The rock-n-roll pub next to my gate opened it’s doors… finally, I could get some fries and a cup of Californian airport coffee.

I slipped around the corner into the restaurant and ordered, still tiredly holding Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I’d been reading it for the last three hours non-stop… The ‘night life’ in my terminal of LAX airport wasn’t what you’d call vibrant.

The idea for the trip was pretty perfunctory. A few weeks ago I came up with a plot for a locked-room mystery/thriller fusion novel, set in an airport. The fly in the ointment was that I’d never flown commercially…

So my wife and I talked it over. She liked my proposed plot enough to agree it was worth paying for the airfare, destroying my schedule to fit in the flights, and leaving her and my two kids on their own for a few days (something I rarely ever elect to do).

And so there I was, watching the early morning crowd of LAX shuffle into their early morning flights, drinking appallingly weak (bad) coffee, trying to stay awake (I hadn’t slept) with the help of Paula Hawkins’ haunting airport novel.

I’m a firm believer of Vera Caspary’s advice: “To be a writer you need to keep an ear and eye always at the keyhole, without malice.” Following this tip meant I’d been aggressively watching everything and everyone for the last day-and-a half… Interesting, but that much people-watching can start to wear on you after awhile.

I sipped my weak coffee and looked back down to The Girl on the Train as the restaurant’s music-video TV started blaring “Free Bird.” The day before I’d taken the bus out to Santa Monica… Walked the beach for miles, surrounded by runners, cyclists, teens practicing tight-rope walking, bikini-clad girls playing beach volleyball, dope fiends, bums, beach bums, street musicians, street magicians, and seemingly every other kind of the Children of the Sun, constantly playing beneath the palm trees down there in California.

Santa Monica was different than the airports. In Santa Monica I stood out. The guy in dress shoes, jeans, a nice shirt and sport jacket, my portfolio under my arm. My Oregon-ness stood out. I could sense the quick assessments from people I passed… “What’s up with him? Oh, out-of-towner.” But at the airport I was like the rest, keeping to myself, the same by being different.

I finished my coffee and walked back to gate 53B a few minutes early for boarding my flight back to PDX, Portland, Oregon.

Herge’s unequivocal character, Tintin, spent a lot of time in airports. This wasn’t a coincidence. Herge was fascinated by them… For many years he toyed with the idea of constructing a story that took place entirely in an airport, such was his confidence in their dynamic potential. That Idea’s always interested me, and it’s had no little influence on me now that I’m constructing my own ‘airport’ tale.

After spending only a few days in airports— paltry experience, compared to many, I’ll admit— I think I can say I understand what Herge saw in them.

It goes back to the strange sense of fitting by being ‘different’ like all the rest, to the point of disappearing. When everyone’s seated in quiet rows on their plane, or walking through the concourse halls, roller-bags trailing behind them, there’s really no noticeable difference. Travelers moving from point A to point B… businessmen, families. But the minute something incites them to interact— tripping someone with luggage, bumping into someone around a corner— it suddenly becomes apparent how diverse they really are.

That bland businessman? From England. The mundane teenager with the lime-green baseball cap? Traveling back to Germany, with his family. The pleasant looking girl in the pantsuit? Angry… apparently, by the fact she just swore out her phone.

I think it’s the quietness of this diversity that can give the airport such potential for drama. So many stories, so many motivations, so many fears, loves, anxieties, apathies, and judgements, from all around the world, packed tightly together, in polite silence.

Until something happens to make the silence break. For me, the writer, the biggest question is… what’s the “something?” Like I said, on the small scale it could be something as simple as bumping into someone. But on the larger scale…

In the end, Herge said it best to Numa Sadoul in his interview which later became the book, Entretiens avec Herge: “An airport is a centre rich in human possibilities, a meeting point for various nationalities; the whole world is to be found scaled down at an airport! There anything can happen, tragedies, jokes, things exotic, adventure…”

Dark Places

It was probably 2:30 in the morning. I was sitting in front of my computer screen, forcing myself to watch… He just slumped down, putting all his weight onto the electrical cord around his neck, struggling into the tightening knot of the homemade noose.

The disturbing thing about it was that he was only feet from the ground. He could have stood up at any time— ended it. And yet he pulled down harder. After a few minutes he quit struggling. His face got really red, his head dropping weirdly against the cord.

He actually died pretty quickly… I assume he broke his neck. (I’ve since seen many other hangings that didn’t end so… ‘easily.’)

Before that I viewed an execution with AK-47s. Before that a suicide with a handgun. After that Syrian prisoners beaten with a coiled cable. After that a prisoner being tortured. (They had skinned his legs while he was still alive, leaving the moving muscles bared.)

I spent hours watching that stuff. Just as I had done the night before, and just as I would do the next night.

And why?

They say “write what you know.” So what does the aspiring murder/mystery novelist do when it comes down to the effects of a 44 magnum on the human skull? Sure, there’s writing-resource sites that let you ‘ask a professional’ and get simplistic answers, but that didn’t seem good enough. That was what all the other aspiring authors were doing… how could I be different?

Conan Doyle… doctor. He saw it all. Michael Connelly… crime reporter. John D Macdonald… served in World War II. Michael Crichton… another doctor.

It seemed as if a lot of the ‘greats’ had experience in the area. Of course, not everyone fits into this mold, but many do.

So I figured I’d get as close to it as I could, with the resources I had. Watch some footage… See how the human body actually reacts to different physical traumas.

As a writer we often find ourselves moving our plots towards dark places… I had heard stories of writers dreading their writing sessions because of where they knew they would have to ‘go.’ I got the idea, but it wasn’t until after a few nights of research I thought I finally understood.

Going to dark places… Why? For me it was to understand the violence in such a way that I could write like I’d been there. Like I was the murderer and the victim. To understand the feeling of killing someone; the dread of realizing you’ve ‘lost,’ and will die.

And after nights of immersing myself in such footage I eventually learned a few things.

Firstly, I was quickly becoming familiar with the violence. Not ‘comfortable,’ per se, but a bit hardened. I suddenly knew what to expect when your face gets punched with brass-knuckles, or a machete’s taken to your fingers, or an extremist slices a dagger into your neck until your head twists off.

Jaded. Hardened. Grim. Weary.

Secondly, I started to empathize with what I was seeing… and not only with the victims. I remember the first moment I realized this I was studying footage of a gang of off-duty soldiers in Syria. They had captured two enemy fighters… It was really a party— they’d laugh, talk, joke, and then light the men’s hair on fire, beat them with sticks, lift them up and drop them, kick them. They just kept at it until the men slowly died.

The realization came when I suddenly wondered why I was viewing these captors as the villains. I didn’t know what those two men had done, nor how they had been captured, nor what was invested in that small slice of life and death… For all I knew the two men had raped the soldiers’ women and killed their children.

Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the wicked satisfaction… or righteous fury… that might have come from slowly killing those two. (Of course there are obvious exceptions to this ambiguity… I had no empathy for the terrorists beheading their victims, etc…)

I remember a story… When Alfred Hitchcock was filming Psycho, Anthony Perkins— who played the murderer Norman Bates— was having trouble forming his role. He complained to Hitchcock that he didn’t know what a murderer looked like. So Hitchcock took him to a little corner cafe.

And then they sat. And sat. Without talking. Watching the endless masses of pedestrian people shuffling past.áAnd eventually Perkins realized what Hitchcock was saying to him: murderers look like normal people. They act like normal people… because they are normal people.

At that point I felt I had what I needed, had gained enough familiarity with the ‘subject,’ to write my novel. So I quit the research.

Is this tortuous study really necessary, though? I believe it is.

I lost something doing that research. I felt the innocence leave the moment I realized that what I was seeing was also latent in all humanity. In those around me. In myself.

But in losing that innocence I also gained something: respect. Now when I watch a murder mystery, or read a thriller, there are actually times I’m legitimately angered by how flippantly violence is used.

A gun to the head does a lot of damage… To the victim’s family, to their friends, and even to the one pulling the trigger… Storytellers should understand the gravity of that before utilizing violence as an element in their novel or on the silver screen. If they don’t, the result is often inappropriate, unbalanced gratuity.

So would I rather cheapen the gravity of such a thing by watering down the reality in my writing? Or make my readers respect the violence that may or may not be coming in the pages ahead? Give it real meaning and purpose instead of sowing it across my stories like cheap wildflower seeds into weedy dirt?

Tough question to answer.

Ismenian Dragons – The Cadmean Victory

As the story goes there once was a Greek prince named Cadmus. Effectively banished from his homeland by his father (in the marvelous logic only reasonable in ancient mythology) Cadmus took to exploring the world.

Which lead him to the sacred cow.

The oracle at Delphi instructed him to follow it. Athena was pleased when he sacrificed it to her. And the city he built upon it’s final resting place, Thebes, has captivated archaeologists and philosophers for centuries since.

Thus far everything seemed to be going well. And yet there was one little ripple along the way… The serpent that guarded the water of the sacred spring of Ares near the site of the future city of Thebes.

When Cadmus’ friends did not return with the water from the spring for the cow’s sacrifice, Cadmus soon discovered the slithering reason. In vengeance he destroyed the god of war’s Ismenian Dragon.

And in so doing built Thebes and gained the respect of Athena (for sacrificing the cow).

And in so doing earned the retribution of Ares.

That retribution took the form of eight years of penance enforced by the wrathful god of war. After the time of Cadmus’ápunishment was up, however, Ares (againáin the sublime logic of Greek Mythology) gave him the goddess Harmonia to wife.

Now on their wedding day Harmonia was given a present by (of all the entities) Athena: a certain cursed necklace which brought misfortune to any who possessed it. And so, even in reward, Cadmus’ life was plagued by disaster.

In addition to everything else, notwithstanding the forgiveness of Ares for slaying the serpent, the charms of the Ismenian Dragon were apparently so strong that fate continued still to attack Cadmus for its demise.

Cadmus was ultimately driven to abdicating his rule and leaving Thebes. In a fit of rage he remarked that if the death of the Ismenian Dragon was so important to the gods, Cadmus himself might as well take its place.

And so his skin suddenly covered with scales, and he changed into the form of an immortal snake. Harmonia pleaded with the gods to share her husbands’ fate and was also changed into a serpent.

Despite their punishment Zeus took pity on Cadmus and Harmonia and transported their charmed forms to the Elysian Fields, the resting place of the virtuous, to at least give them honor in their eternal curse.

And thus literature has given us a most compelling phrase, the “Cadmean Victory,” which is to say a victory that— though at first a triumph— ultimately leads to the victor’s own ruin.

Both the phrase as well as the story are largely forgotten today, which is understandable due to the obscurity of the original tale. Notwithstanding that obscurity, however, there are some surprisingly relevant concepts to be taken from the story.

The Ismenian Dragon is a most interesting idea. For Cadmus, it was at first the embodiment of evil— the murderer of his compatriots, a block in the way of constructing Thebes. And yet after it’s demise he was punished as though he had murdered a saint. Indeed, the definition of a “Cadmean victory” relies almost exclusively on the nature of the Ismenian Dragon.

This same nature is what gives the Ismenian Dragon poignancy to our present day, for it can easily become a symbol. A concept applicable to a wide range of situations.

So how would one apply this concept? And to what? To whom?

Perhaps one of the purest embodiments of an Ismenian Dragon is murder. Murder is a victory— yes, unpleasant enough to say, but wholly true— in which the perpetrator has successfully forced their physical dominance over another person.

But the success of killing has it’s costs. No matter how sure the murderer may be they will elude capture, they are almost always caught. Life imprisonment, or death usually is the result… Far from the (arguably) honorable ruin of Cadmus!

Murder is but one very pure— and very extreme— example. The principle can continue to many other specific applications as well. The businessman suddenly faced with the opportunity to take credit for another’s work— and in so doing gain reputation, advancement, even tangible money— could clearly be facing a hidden, Ismenian Dragon.

Of course, there is always the possibility of ‘getting away with’ the crime. Murderers do occasionally go free; embezzlers and plagiarizers do sometimes make good. In a peculiar sense, then, the Ismenian Dragon can only ultimately be defined by looking back in retrospect. And hence comes the uncertainty: only by retrospection can you realize if, where, and when you met your proverbial serpent in the spring.

In mystery literature and film— especially in the noir genre— Ismenian Dragons are often what drive the movement of the plot. We are customarily given fallen heroins or broken heroes who are led through a set of circumstances to a lurking Ismenian Dragon-choice, or who are driven by the consequences of a prior Cadmean victory. In fact the Noir genre customarily uses the repercussions of past Cadmean victories to drive characters developments and actions: the ‘good man’ with a ‘bad past.’

Ismenian Dragons are often used to develop and built suspense and plot movement as well. An example is easily seen in the film The Devil Wears Prada, in which Anne Hathaway’s character is ultimately presented with an Ismenian Dragon in the choice of furthering her career at the clearly hinted cost of losing the fullness of her personal life. In the end, most of the drama and suspense in the entire film comes from the build-up and her reactions to the clear Cadmean quailty of accepting the advancement.

And in addition to this the speculative nature of the Ismenian Dragon is also always present: had Andy accepted Miranda Priestly’s offer of advancement there is no guarantee that Andy’s life would have suffered. Just as there’s no tangible proof that the capture of the murderer in Vera Caspary’s 1942 novel Lauraáwas due to any ill fate more significant than the villain’s own hubris and cocksure risk taking.

The Ismenian Dragon can be both a very effective, and often dark, mechanism for drama, then. Rife with contradictions, opportunity for speculation, and avenues for exploitation. When you know what to look for, it seems that often the full power of a story is only unleashed when a pivotal character makes their choice at their proverbial spring of Ares.

The nextátime you watch Casablanca, Laura, D. O. A., or read the next Agatha Christie or Gaston Leroux (Eric the Opera Ghost is a fascinating model of the consequences of past wrongs) or any other title of mystery, thrill, or noir-crime, see if you can’t spot where the Ismenian Dragons are hidden, with whom the culpability of their deaths reside, and who may be still suffering their penance from a Cadmean victory.

Then let me know in the comments below, or at our Facebook or Twitter page… I want to hear from you!

SB Watson