10 Tips For Writing a Family Drama Novel

Bestselling author Clare Mackintosh shares the 10 things she learned when writing a family drama and reveals what will be key when writing your own.

I’d written three bestselling thriller novels before I began work on After the End, an emotional family drama about two parents who disagree on the medical care of their three-year-old son. I’d won awards, been a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller; I thought I knew what I was doing. I was wrong.

Just as a historical novel is likely to require more research than a contemporary one, a story about a family in crisis needs a different approach to a police procedural. There are crossovers, of course—suspense is suspense, however you frame it—and so a lot of what follows will be useful for any writer, but here’s what I learned about writing a family drama novel.

1. Character comes first

Compelling characters are important in all types of fiction, but readers will often accept a less-rounded character in a crime novel if the plot is exciting enough. In a family drama, the protagonists drive the plot, so spend time getting to know them before you start writing.

2. Find your central question

In After the End, I explored what crisis does to a strong relationship and how we can learn to be happy again. Pinning down your central question like this enables you to keep focused as you write so that every scene contributes towards the answer.

(What's Your Theme?)

3. Look for the conflict

Identify what your protagonists want and need (they will be different), then pinpoint where they clash. These are your novel’s moments of high drama. In After the End, Max campaigns for Dylan to have specialist treatment, while Pip fights to end their son’s suffering. The conflict is so huge it eclipses the fact that they both actually want the same thing: what’s best for their son.

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4. Contrast POV

Family dramas put relationships under the microscope in a way we rarely get to see in real life. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors, after all? Fiction allows readers to open those doors, so consider whose perspectives offer the most dramatic opportunities. Mother and daughter? Husband and wife?

5. Get emotional

If you’re moved by your writing, your reader will be too, so dig deep and make your words pull at the heartstrings. I find classical music incredibly stirring, so played it constantly as I wrote After the End.

6. Light and shade

One-note fiction is boring to read, so look for the light and shade in your story. If your family-based novel is humorous, consider what crisis might jeopardize their happiness; if you’re writing a tragedy, find pockets of sun amid the storm.

7. Play the therapist

The question I’m constantly asking, as I work through a first draft, is "Why?" Why does X feel this way? Why is Y speaking so sharply, or ignoring Z? Understanding your characters’ motivations means their actions will be consistent, and your novel will have the depth it needs to engage your readers.

(Characterization: Exploring Character Development in Your Writing)

8. Raise the stakes

Any event can be dramatic if the character in question has a lot to lose, so up the ante whenever you can. Throw in a time limit or consider the emotional consequences of a decision, not just the logistical ones.

9. Nail your dialogue

Leave your writing desk and hit the coffee shops, or sit on a park bench. Listen to conversations, hear how people interrupt each other or let their sentences trail away. When you’re editing, work on tightening your dialogue by deleting unnecessary ‘he said/she said’ and cutting conversation that doesn’t add value.

10. Use metaphor

Create atmosphere and suspense by using environmental elements to reflect the tensions in your story. A funeral that takes place on a sunny summer morning has a very different feel to one on a rainy day in November. Using nature is a great way to foreshadow events and mirror your characters’ feelings.

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We writers are always honing our craft, and so much of what I learned in writing After the End was useful when I then began writing my next book—another thriller. I hope my pointers are helpful to you, and I’d love to hear your own suggestions for creating compelling family dramas. 

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