Restrain Your Characters, Please

***Excerpted from my editing class (Lesson 6: Turn Down the Volume)

Sometimes drama works. And sometimes it’s just loud.

Hyping up the drama in fiction is not the same as creating dramatic conflict or believable tension. The latter is built on successive challenges and obstacles to the character, the former on emotional flash.

Gone are the Hollywood days of a good face slap, when the heroine spits venom at her hero lover and he plants a big kiss on her afterward. Touché, amour!

Nowadays, that’s called abuse and generates restraining orders. Not that a character can’t get so riled they let fists fly.

But consider how cliché and passé such a scene has become. My theory is let the tension drive your readers to want to throw the punch for you. And only let it happen once in a book, after a long-time coming.

Too much gunplay can also numb a reader. Heroes who go around shooting everyone is too Arnold Schwarzenegger for books. In screenwriting, there’s a philosophy that says “when a scene gets boring, throw a gun in the room.” Been there, seen that.

Hollywood has numbed us to the presence of weapons, and writers often use such tricks without believable reasons or intent.

What readers will believe is the emotional buildup and tension that we’ve seen a character endure through constant struggles, receiving blow after blow in life. No person, real or fictional, can “take it” forever. Such a build-up means one thing: a blow-out.

When the character becomes the loaded weapon, then entrance of a gun (or knife, sword, poison, etc.) makes readers tense. By now, they anticipate a showdown.

While we’re on the subject of characters throwing a fit, don’t let them constantly storm off, stomp their feet, scream, hit walls or have full-fledge panic attacks (unless they have condition like clinical anxiety or PTSD).

You’re supposed to put your characters in a pressure cooker, so if they are blowing their top all the time, then the reader has nothing greater to expect. You’ve spent your wad.