Sunday

Drama in Storytelling: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

I recently went to see a production of Steinbeck’s great play-novelette, Of Mice and Men. The fact that a friend was playing George was a big part of the draw, but I generally do like to go see plays now and then -- for enjoyment, edification, and to remind myself of the essential kinship that exists between theatrical productions and fictional prose narratives.

During the play’s intermission, I was talking to someone and it flashed into my mind that Of Mice and Men would be a perfect work to study with regard to the centrality of drama in storytelling. Far too much of the fiction I'm reading these days is flaccid and uninspiring, a condition for which more drama is the most important antidote. If your fiction is getting tepid reactions from readers, drama is almost certainly the missing ingredient. Drama is what allows a story to grab readers by the throat and never let them go.

There’s a good deal more to it, of course, than just putting in more arguments and swashbuckling fight scenes. “Quiet” narratives can and should have as much or more drama than action-packed stories. So, where does drama come from, and why do I think Of Mice and Men offers such an instructive example?

Before I jump in to the story, I should probably define terms. I don’t know or care what the official jargon is, but for the purposes of this post I’m defining storytelling “drama” as consisting of two main elements: tension and conflict. Tension is the knowledge or expectation that something bad is going to happen. Conflict is when something bad actually happens, often manifested as a clash between opposing characters.

There isn’t a single moment in Of Mice and Men that doesn’t bristle with drama. I remember picking up the novelette a few years ago and scarcely being able to breathe until I’d reached the final line. Moreover, Steinbeck’s drama is completely “honest,” in that it emerges directly from the characters’ basic makeup: their proclivities, flaws, and deeply held desires. As I see it, here are the main sources of drama in Of Mice and Men:
  • Lennie’s overwhelming and thoughtless strength, and his disquieting tendency to love small furry creatures to death. 
  • Curley’s Napoleon complex, as manifested in his antipathy toward Lennie. 
  • Curley’s wife’s flirtatiousness, and the trouble it portends with regard to Curley’s extreme jealousy and proclivity to violence. 
  • George and Lennie’s need to “make a stake” in order to survive and free themselves of the cycle of poverty and hard labor. (Note: this is the story’s central “dramatic need” – it propels the story’s main actions in addition to serving as a source of tension in its own right: will they succeed or won’t they?) 
  • George and Lennie’s yearning (later shared by Candy and Crooks) for their own farmstead with chickens, a garden, and Lennie’s long-haired rabbits. This note of yearning is closely related to the “dramatic need” mentioned above, and is one of the things that gives the story its deep resonance.
Together, all these point-sources of simmering drama create an overwhelming sense of impending disaster. This is the definition of suspense. Of Mice and Men has it in spades, which is why it's so consistently arresting. Things are inevitably going to go wrong. The characters' dramatic needs will either be met or thwarted, and their intrinsically oppositional natures are bound to express themselves in a final conflagration. Here's another point where I believe many stories fail. Dramatic tension is worth nothing if it's never consummated in dramatic conflict. But Steinbeck, of course, delivers. 


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To sum up, there’s not one simple, easy-to-articulate source of drama in Of Mice and Men. Rather, there are a whole slew of sources, many of them intertwined, that are developed and unfolded in the course of a simple, linear, and emphatically causal chain of events. The resolution is quite satisfying, because all the drama is resolved in a single, climactic scene.

The main lesson I take out of this? Don’t stint when it comes drama. It is much more likely that your story has too little of it than too much. In fact, there can’t be too much of it, as long as it’s “honest”  – that is, character-driven.

I think a lot of contemporary writers forget this. It’s not so much that nothing happens – although that too is a problem in a lot of apprentice fiction. It’s that what does happen isn’t “honest” enough. It isn’t sufficiently rooted in the desires and flaws and intrinsic natures of the story’s characters.

Steinbeck is a great American master. His fiction is as urgent and resonant now as the day it was written. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read Of Mice and Men, the few thrilling hours it takes to immerse yourself in it will be an eminently worthwhile investment.