What makes a compelling drama?

The question unfolded this week as I reread my nearly-completed first novel. The manuscript had been cooling off this summer while I awaited reader feedback on the revisions I made in May (I can’t emphasize enough the value of developing a “cold eye” as you return to a novel-in-progress—setting the draft aside for one or two months minimum seems to do the trick for me). As I scratched notes in the marginalia, alongside my reader’s, I took a mental step back and donned my Booklover’s Cap as well, observing my reading experience as I would any other novel. What was my emotional investment as I met the characters? How eagerly (or reluctantly) was I turning the page? Did the plot twists make not only logical, but thematic sense in the end?

Imagine my relief, joy, and pride when I reached the end and found that the novel indeed accomplishes all those things in a suspenseful, resonating way. In the coming weeks, I need only tweak the opening and the end, read it aloud and make line-edits, and the novel will be officially ready to submit for publication.

But how, exactly, did I do it? For in order to create a drama compelling enough to pull a reader through four hundred and fifty pages, one must create drama on every page, and within the sentences themselves. Not a gesture, image, prop, or dramatic opportunity must be wasted.

Evenings, as I returned to the dance studio and began learning choreography for the upcoming fall show, the answers I sought about drama floated down to me. Especially during veil class, perhaps because the veil provides the ultimate now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t illusion in Middle Eastern dance. Illusion is integral to any art form, and dance exhibits mystery and suspense as does any great literary work. Often this is accomplished by the layering of simple basics to create complexity, along with aesthetic rules-of-thumb as to what works on stage.

The Advanced Veil routine is flirty and rife with veil manipulations that create illusion, the song bewitching and catchy. In short, this is a number that reels you in from the beginning and leaves you spellbound; when it ends, the audience is left holding their breath, yearning for more—but alas, the magic is over. I know because I was lucky enough to see the choreography performed a couple of years ago, and when the curtain closed I was squirming in my seat with envy, wishing I’d been in the veil class. It’s the same agonizing feeling you get when you clap shut, say, Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and say to yourself, My God, I wish I had written that.

One of my favorite ways to think about drama and plot is the connection/disconnection model, perhaps because it is an even more simplified version of the inverted checkmark, conflict-crisis-resolution structure. While one could argue that the “storytelling” in dance is not imbued with a power struggle on par with the demands of fiction, there still needs to be dramatic tension on stage, no matter how joyous, sexy, or haunting the dance.

In “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” (Sixth Edition), author Janet Burroway borrows from dramatist Claudia Johnson regarding the “something else” at play here:

Whereas the dynamic of the power struggle has long been acknowledged, narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect. Over the course of a story, and within the smaller scale of a scene, characters make and break emotional bonds of trust, love, understanding, or compassion with one another. A connection may be as obvious as a kiss or as subtle as a glimpse; a connection may be broken with an action as obvious as a slap or as subtle as an arched eye-brow (38).

Which is why in veil class, our teacher, Anamitra, is constantly advising us where we should be looking at certain points during the choreography. If we look to the right corner as we toss the veil to the right, repeat the same on the left, and on the third beat come center, we make eye contact with the audience. If we do hip lifts in a circle with the veil above our heads, we maintain eye contact with the audience as long as we can before facing the back. If she forgets to mention this while teaching, it won’t be long before a student will pipe up, “And where are we looking?” Sometimes we are gazing off in a romantic, dreamy way; other moments our chins are lifted, and we peer down our noses in a snotty, you-can’t-have-me fashion; it all depends on particular type of dramatic effect we want to portray. But no matter what type of dance, the choreography of when we are looking at the audience, when we are not, and how we are doing that is crucial to the creation of drama on stage—the connection/disconnection as interpreted by the audience. Without it, the dance would be void of emotional effect.

Another aspect of creating drama is “revealing and concealing”—the favorite saying in fiction workshops which translates to when, and how much, an author chooses to reveal something integral to the plot versus conceal the information for later. Great fiction is a juggling act in which the author reveals just enough, at a certain time, to satisfy the reader while keeping him or her hungry—with the unspoken promise that even more will be revealed later on. Nothing in Middle Eastern dance exemplifies this writerly device more than the veil, with its various ways of concealing the body, only to reveal the dancer—surprise!—when least expected. There are a plethora of veil techniques which partially or fully conceal—the Roman cape, the butterfly, kimono sleeves, and one of my favorites, dubbed “the burrito”—and as with fiction, the timing of when to conceal and reveal is crucial to creating interest and suspense. And like fiction, the veil looks easy but is not; the key is to keep it constantly moving, never at rest. This illusion of now you see me, now you don’t is another facet of connection/disconnection.

Tired yet? All this creating drama takes quite a bit of work. But that’s because great art isn’t just about creating drama but sustaining it, whether the medium is a novel or a two-act dance show. If the techniques above aren’t enough to challenge your synapses, there’s also something else to keep in mind—clean mechanics. It’s always the details that count. In literary writing, this means telling detail, the active voice, and all the invisible magic of proper grammar, formatting, and punctuation. In dance this translates to straight arms, pointed toes, the synchronicity of the dancers on stage, good posture. Good form. For all of the illusion falls flat if the mechanics are sloppy; the audience member is distracted by the saggy arm resembling a chicken wing, or the reader is yanked out of the story by the overly descriptive dialogue tag; the “vivid and continuous dream” made famous by John Gardner is ended. But create your drama right, and you have magic indeed.

And now, back to the novel.

**Note** For further reading on the subtleties of creating dramatic effect, I recommend “The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot” by Charles Baxter, although numerous other craft essays and articles on the topic abound. The discussion above is hardly meant to be comprehensive; rather, it serves as a starting point.