Teenage Morticians in Love

7-8 Minute Read

In our last exercise, we explored how shifting perspectives can help us develop new material. We’re going to build on that work in this activity by stepping outside ourselves again to develop a character’s voice, this time with the help of a dramatic premise.

When you hear the phrase “dramatic premise,” your mind may immediately go to dramatic monologues, which many of us will associate with either poetry or the stage. That’s a good association to make here, as we’ll eventually be writing dramatic monologues with the help of a handout that I’ve linked to below. But let’s stay focussed on the concept of the dramatic premise for now, as it’s something that cuts across virtually all genres. Whether you’re an aspiring novelist, playwright, poet, memoirist, or screenwriter, your work will benefit immensely from a strong dramatic premise.

I say so because most every successful piece of creative writing has these three elements in common: a setting, a main character, and a situation from which the narrative unfolds. In order for our readers to grasp what our stories (or poems or plays or scripts) are about, we need to establish these elements early on. Some writers manage to communicate, or at least to hint at, their dramatic premise through their title, whereas others do so at, or near, the beginning of the piece of writing. And, of course, many are adept at doing both.

What matters most is that our audience is able to appreciate three things: where the action is taking place; why we’ve brought them to this scene, and who it is we’re introducing them to. The action of a given story, after all, can’t take place in a vacuum–unless, that is, it’s the vacuum of space, and your main character, whose ship was just destroyed in a collision with a fleet of renegade snack machines, only has minutes of oxygen left. In which case, go for it.

As you complete this activity, keep in mind that creating a dramatic premise is not just about hooking your reader: you’re giving yourself the beginning of a plot to work with, and an environment for your characters to find their way through. You’re also ensuring that you avoid one of the biggest problems that plagues creative writing workshops, which is cryptic writing.

You may have had this experience already: you write something and you’re so very pleased with it. And you think, “Wow, this turned out really well.”

But then you share it with someone else, and you get a muted reaction. It’s confusing when that happens, isn’t it? Because it felt like the writing was so good.

Often what happens when people are unsure about a story or a poem is that there isn’t a strong enough dramatic premise. They don’t know where they are, who’s talking, and, as a result, they’re not sure why they should care.

Do a great job of developing your dramatic premise, and you’ll never have this problem, entirely because you will have given both yourself and your reader a clear map to follow.

Getting Started

In order to complete this activity, you’ll need:

Here’s what I’m asking you to do: print off the handout, and then cut out each box that you find there. Make three piles: one for adjectives, one for characters, and, finally, one for verbal phrases.

I typically teach creative writing in the fall or winter, and so there’s usually at least three winter toques in the classroom by the time we get to this activity. Round up three of these, and then place your piles in them so that student can easily draw a piece of paper at random. If you’re doing this activity on your own, it’s still fun to place these pieces of paper in hats or bags. That way, you still get to be surprised by what you pick from the hat.

Once you have drawn one item from each category, you should have an adjective, a noun, and a verbal phrase. For example:

An agoraphobic+water slide tester+goes for a ride in a hot air balloon

Now that you have your dramatic premise, go ahead and write in the voice of this character. Think about how this individual would react in this situation, and then see where the premise takes you.

If you’re enjoying this exercise, you can extend it by coming up with your own adjective+noun+verbal phrase pairings. And, of course, these don’t have to be over-the-top: a dramatic premise can be as simple as taking your dog for a walk on a rainy evening, or trying to reboot your router after a power outage. What matters is that you combine these elements so that both you and your reader know where are, and so that there’s a situation unfolding before you.

One Last Thing

It’s no mistake that dramatic monologues became increasingly popular around the same time that early psychologists were developing a more nuanced understanding of the subconscious and its considerable depths. The very idea that each of us consists of many layers must have felt like an open invitation to explore the multiplicity of selfhood, and to do so by channeling the many voices that each of us carries within.

As you grow as a writer, there’s a good chance you’ll want to get to know these voices better and to hear them out. I would encourage you to do so, provided you keep watchful eye out for instances where your own imagination and creativity are leading you too far outside yourself and into the lives of others. It’s not that the voices we hope to capture in our writing can’t be different from our own. In fact, if that were the case, it would be virtually impossible to write at all.

But I can tell you that I spend a lot of time thinking about how the things I write will impact others. I think about the people I’m writing about, how I’m characterizing them, and whether these depictions are fair.

And even when I’m just making stuff up, I don’t pretend that what I’m putting to the page is somehow detached from the broader world. I accept that what I write influences how people view larger segments of society, and I take that responsibility seriously.

These, of course, are commitments I’ve arrived at for myself. And they aren’t decisions that anyone can make for you, but I do hope that you reflect on the impact that your work can have on others, and that you make these reflections part of your daily life as a writer.

Looking Back

Many of the dramatic premises that you encountered in this exercise likely felt exaggerated. I have no idea how many water slide testers there are in the world, but I’m guessing very few of them are agoraphobic. Still, it’s fun to entertain the possibility, which is precisely the point: if you give yourself a premise to work with at the outset, it may well take you to an interesting place. And from there, anything can happen.


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