Tension Requires Release Tension Series Part 5

Tension in fiction keeps us reading because we crave resolution. Too much, too soon, and readers may not bother to finish. Too little, too late, and readers may get annoyed. The art of storytelling is all about building tension while allowing just the right amount of release, until a climax in which the most significant tensions reach their zenith and then get resolved.

The release of tension is especially important in six key areas:

1. Voice

Readers love characters who are able to laugh at themselves or at life in spite of its challenges. Humor in the voice allows for the release of tension, while increasing the readers’ sympathy for and investment in the protagonist, which in turn can increase the tension if the protagonist remains under threat. Humor in the voice can also be indicative of character. It can reveal vulnerability. In the face of tough problems, it can be brave. Voice is capable of conveying more than one emotion – even conflicted feelings. Voice gives writers a unique opportunity to release and build tension at the same time.

2. Scenic Counterpoints

Moments of happiness or humor can work to release some tension, as well as to augment it. A happy scene that comes out of an important relationship can act to increase the stakes. A funny situation that gives us a much-needed break can end up making things worse. (See Have Your Cake and Tension Too.) To place these moments, you should go with your gut. If you need a breather, then chances are that your readers do too.

3. Chapter Endings

Readers also like to see the main character make progress. Chapter endings can be an important place to signal this, at the same time as carrying forward enough tension on new or unresolved issues to keep building the overall tension. You always want to carry some tension into the next scene. If you ever have problems with a new chapter or scene feeling flat, a good trick is to go back and build up the tension in the previous one.

4. Midpoint of the Plot

The release of tension at the midpoint illustrates what may be the most subtle and essential way to relieve tension in fiction: the move from inward tension to outward action. At some point, the protagonist brooding isn’t enough – we want to see him or her do something. Taking action in fiction, as in life, is the truest expression of how much someone cares. At the midpoint, we’re usually referring to the moment when the protagonist shifts internally from resistance to the beginnings of change, but when there’s still a lot to do in terms of action to resolve the goals of the plot. From the midpoint on is usually when a book is hardest to put down, because readers want to see where that shift from inward tension to outward action leads.

5. Period of Grace

The protagonist’s internal shift at the midpoint from resistance to the beginnings of change also makes possible a special kind of scene, often referred to as a period of grace. We get a glimpse of what might be possible for the character if only he or she would be willing to change and grow. You might be concerned that this would reduce the tension too much, and it can if the character has nothing further to accomplish, but if instead the biggest change has only happened inside the protagonist and he or she still has to take action to fulfill the goals of the plot, then a period of grace will actually increase the stakes and magnify the tension.

6. Climax and Resolution

The climax of a story is where the central conflicts come to a head and get concluded, not simply in terms of external events, but also as the fruition of the changes realized inside the protagonist. (See Tension Begins with Character.) The basic test of story is whether the protagonist achieves something in the end that he or she was incapable of achieving at the start. The most gratifying release of tension occurs when the internal change we hoped for brings about the external resolution we most desired.

This is also where we discover that “resolution” doesn’t mean that everything needs to be perfect, but just that the imbalances that drove this story have been righted, and we find ourselves at the beginning of something new.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.



Dynamic Tension in Plot Tension Series Part 4

Tension begins with character and stakes, but it is in plot that writers access the fullest orchestral dynamics of tension. Over the course of a story, we want to experience an overall mounting of tension, leading to a midpoint in which inward tension gives way to outward action, and finally culminating in a climax in which both the action and the core tensions are resolved. We read to see tension get resolved, whether for good or ill. The arc of story is an arc of rising tension and its ultimate resolution.

Your own physical sensation of tension is an invaluable tool for evaluating plot. You can tell if the tension mounts or flatlines by paying attention to the way you feel when you read your own work. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.)

The most significant tension in plot flows from the protagonist investing the action with stakes. Setbacks carry tension because we want so badly to get past them. Indifference would take tension away. For tension in plot, we’re looking for action that expresses and magnifies the oppositional forces at play in character and theme. (See Tension Begins with Character.)

To accomplish this, you want your protagonist to begin with traits in resistance to your central truth – to need the journey to get there. You want your plot to include circumstances that challenge that resistance until it breaks. In The Truth Behind Fiction, I mention Dara Marks and her excellent book, Inside Story. She cites John Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?”

The kind of obstacles we’re talking about won’t simply slow down our protagonist. They need both to block progress toward the character’s deepest desires/needs AND to work for interior change in the sense that they demand it if the most important goals are to be met.

A well-designed antagonist can help to accomplish this. If your antagonist reflects the darkest outcome of where your protagonist’s failings could lead, then his or her goals will inherently challenge the protagonist inside. Likewise, allies who reflect the thematic truth of your story and embody the goals of the plot can either clarify the stakes by modeling them or increase the stakes by being at risk.

In many novels, the plot is centered on solving, or failing to solve, a relationship. But even if you don’t have a relationship plot per se, the oppositional forces at play in your protagonist will be made manifest not only in the main plotline, but in the central relationship of the story. In other words, what’s holding them back inside needs to be conquered to progress a critical relationship, as well as to achieve the goals of the plot. Whether plot or subplot, the relationship conflict is where we most intimately see the cost of the protagonist’s fears and resistance to change. Those fears and resistance will impact the protagonist’s ability to connect. This is gold for writers! Relationships give us almost endless opportunities for tension.

Dara Marks depicts this interaction in the form of a triangle in Inside Story: (A) The problems in the outer world can only be solved if (B) there’s shift in consciousness inside the main character, and (C) that shift in consciousness occurs in relationship to someone hugely important to the main character. She uses the movie, Casablanca, to illustrate. Rick’s help is needed to help Laszlo escape (A), but that can only be achieved if Rick begins to care again about others (B), and for that, he must learn to love unconditionally through his relationship with Ilsa (C).

We can see how this all fits together in a novel using The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Amir, the privileged Sunni narrator, comes of age during the end of the monarchy in Afghanistan. His servant Hassan is the opposite of privileged; he’s also Shi’a and Hazara Mongoloid, the subject of ridicule in Amir’s culture. Amir holds him at arm’s length, while Hassan loves Amir completely. Amir’s attitude leads to his abandoning Hassan during the country’s revolution and invasion by Russian forces. Without the challenges of the plot, his attitude could simply continue; his insides might never change. But the Taliban takes over, massacres Hazaras, and kills Hassan and his wife, leaving their son abandoned – just as Amir abandoned Hassan. At the midpoint, Amir discovers that Hassan is his brother and that a Taliban official who buys children to rape has taken Hassan’s son. Amir is the only one who could save him. This antagonist isn’t simply privileged and callous like Amir: he’s focused and cruel. Amir must commit himself completely if the boy is to have a chance. In theory, we could have the Sunni vs Shi’a conflict of the plot without it being reflected inside – but there’d be less tension. As it is, we don’t know until near the end if Amir will summon up the courage to change.

Plot devices can act to increase tension, but they need to work with the larger forces of tension. If Amir got a hangnail, it might annoy him, but it wouldn’t augment the tension. But his being unable to find Hassan’s son – the combination of delay and uncertainty – magnifies the deeper tensions of character and plot. To search for what works, consider “how would this feel?” as well as “what if?” Consult your own senses for what would create the most tension.

Plot devices to consider include: suspense, time pressure, a ticking clock, delayed gratification, opportunities (be careful what you wish for), surprises, attraction, sexual tension, complications, setbacks, danger, threat, uncertainty, nagging worries, a character taking untoward risks, being misled, clashing agendas, the unpredictability of others, the desire to escape, a character facing a challenging journey, a quest, secrets, enigmas, and mysteries.

Mystery has a place in all kinds of writing, not just thrillers. There’s an aspect of mystery in every journey: the need to solve life. For example, in The Kite Runner, we have the mystery about what Amir will do and about whether he’ll manage to change inside, in addition to harrowing threats and a ticking clock.

And if with your particular characters, you think of anything that they’d especially fear or couldn’t handle, then you’ve got to consider throwing that at them to see how they’d react. If they don’t like tight places, then you have to put them in a tight place when their dealing with it matters. If they hate conflict, then it’s got to take conflict to get them where they need to go. You want to see what your characters are made of, to push them out farther, to strip away their defenses. To force them to become more than they were.

Plot is a crucible. It’s all about your main character needing to be brave. That can be harder than it sounds. We love our characters and may have to overcome an urge to protect them. Behind every hero’s journey is a brave writer’s journey. Heroism has everything to do with transcending limitations – not only our characters’, but our own.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Stakes and Sympathy. Next month: Tension Requires Release.



Stakes and Sympathy Tension Series Part 3

Not only do stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot in fiction, they forge a connection with the reader as well. Stakes invest the action with tension. The key to generating stakes is to make your protagonists’ wants and needs BIG. Wants that stir us; needs that change lives.

In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder talks about the importance of harnessing primal forces in the crafting of personality. By primal forces, he means basic drives: survival, hunger, sex, fear of death, protection of loved ones. I’d add others, such as the urge to find love, concern for others, self-realization (a sense of purpose or self worth), and the need to grow up.

Stakes can shift over the course of a novel. Characters can be deluded. Needs can go unrecognized. Less important wants can give way to more compelling needs. Look at George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He thinks he wants to get away and have his own life, but ends up trapped, taking care of others. What he really needs is to reclaim his own value and let others take care of him.

A move in the direction of more significant stakes is a move in the direction of greater tension.

A further refinement is that stakes for the protagonist and the reader aren’t exactly the same. This difference is subtle, but essential to the goal of generating tension in the reader. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.) Readers pick up on stakes in at least three different ways:

1. Identification: I want what you want.

Identification tends to involve wants we all share, such as the basic drives listed above. For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we desperately want the characters to find love and beauty despite the ugliness and hate of their capture. We’d want that for ourselves. We identify with their feelings.

2. Empathy: I want you to have what you want.

Empathy invites readers to care about wants outside their own experience. It usually centers on more sympathetic characters, the strength of whose wanting can stir a sense of stakes in us all. I like the funny example of the Disney movie Ratatouille for this. I couldn’t understand how I was going to care about a rat learning to cook, but once I saw the movie, I did. In serious novels, this approach can take readers to places they might otherwise never understand. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind. We empathize with the character. (See The Love of a Writer.)

3. Direct stakes: I want this for myself.

Some plot situations throw out stakes directly to readers, such as saving a child in danger. Even if the character doesn’t fully want it, we do! The solving of a mystery can present its own stakes. That’s probably why mysteries can get away with such grouchy detectives. Another example of direct stakes is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with its deliberately unsympathetic and unreliable main characters. The mystery there is on the level of character. We care about the solution.

Stakes for the reader are an interaction of character and plot, sometimes more of one or the other. If the stakes are empathy-based, then it’s relatively more important that we care about the protagonist and want him or her to succeed. If the wants or needs are so universal that we can’t help but share them, then our sympathy can be weaker. A gauge to determine whether the stakes are working is the tension produced. How tense the stakes make us feel gives us a way to assess their strength.

In all these situations, the physical sensation of tension can act as the writer’s divining rod. Is your character impelled by a big enough want or need? Consider tension. Is your character’s resistance or fear strong enough to put that goal in doubt? Consider tension. Does your character need to be more sympathetic or, conversely, more unreliable? Consider tension. Are the stakes investing the action with real meaning? Consider tension.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Tension Begins with Character. Next month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.