Tension in the Telling Tension Series Part 6

Tension is key to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories. That tension begins with character and gets expressed and magnified in plot, but the way we tell our stories is every bit as important. To complete my series on tension, I’d like to highlight some of the storytelling techniques that may be exploited as part of the overall orchestration of tension.

1. Writing in Scene

Writing in scene means something is taking place right in front of us, and we don’t know where it will lead. We have the most rawness and risk. This is true for the writer originally as well as for the reader: scene pushes us to discover our characters’ reactions in the moment. When events occur off-stage or in summary, we’re more shielded from uncertainty and the tension that goes with it. Scenes encourage us to show rather than tell and to make the fullest use of plot devices such as time pressure and suspense. (See Dynamic Tension in Plot.)

Despite the advantages of scene, summary may at times enhance the tension. It can help to avoid losing focus or dragging down the pace. To choose between scene and summary in a given instance, your sense of tension can help you decide. Sometimes a quick summary will better sustain the tension in your story’s forward line.

2. Emotional Impact

If your protagonist seems unaffected by what’s happening in the plot, then the tension dissipates. Why should readers care if the characters don’t? Donald Maass writes eloquently about the importance of including emotions in fiction in Third Level Emotions on Writer Unboxed. As you write, you need to keep asking yourself: how does my point-of-view character feel? Then you want to look for ways to convey that in story, including the techniques mentioned below and elsewhere on this blog. (See The Things We Carry.) For more, check out Don’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, and Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus.

3. Activating the Senses

Sensory details provide the most visceral experience of tension. We can use them to increase the tension in our characters and readers simultaneously. What is being seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted? Keep in mind that what we want readers to share is the filtered experience: details that give us insight into a character’s feelings, as well as bringing home the larger forces of tension at play in character and plot. If your protagonist is angry, then the food might taste awful. Or if the food tastes good, then the angry character might have trouble choking it down. Readers will pick up on that choking sensation on a physical level and share in the tension that triggers it.

4. Staging and Gestures

How close we stand and whether we touch are other physical clues that can affect readers directly. Do the characters keep a certain distance? What happens when they break it? What gestures do they make without being fully aware? Literary editor, writer, and teacher, Fred Shafer likes to ask writers, “Where are their hands?” How we move is revealing of how we feel, and can be a nuanced way to convey tension without wordy explanations. (See Movement with Meaning.)

5. Setting and Objects

The larger environment of your novel should reflect the protagonist’s fears and what he or she has to conquer, but within each scene, subtle aspects of setting can add to the tension. The closeness of a room, the atmosphere, the weather, the amount of light and noise, even the nature of objects. “Objective correlative” means that perceptions of objective things are colored by the feelings of the point-of-view character. If that protagonist of yours is still angry, then the furniture might be hard, the weather bleak. If it’s sunny, then it could be painfully bright. (See The Things We Carry.) The concept here is telling details. Details that tell us important things.

Also note that some objects are inherently loaded with tension: guns, knives, diaries, secret letters. Or writers can choose to load an object with meaning, such as Donna Tartt does with the painting in The Goldfinch. Acuteness of observation all by itself has a way of bringing things into focus and making them matter to readers. We listen harder when the details get crisp.

6. Poetic Power

Metaphors, imagery, and other figurative language can augment tension because of the associations they bring up in readers’ minds. A bird with a broken wing has meaning for us all. Writers can also infuse images with story-specific significance to carry import and tension from one point to another. Either approach can have the effect of exploding with meaning – the way sudden insight expands our vision.

7. Narrative Techniques

Readers can pick up on tension that is outside the protagonist. In first person, the protagonist may have blind spots or a certain obtuseness – he or she may report things, but not fully see. In third person restricted, this can go even further: even a virtually invisible narrator can include actions of which the protagonist is barely conscious, which can be quite revealing. In third person omniscient, this can go farthest of all – we can know thoughts in one head that are a complete mystery to another. But the trade-off in terms of tension can be the dispersal of identification. Readers may not as fully invest themselves on an emotional level with a series of point-of-view characters as they would with one.

When working with tension outside the protagonist, writers should try to reread their work with different experiences in the forefront. Read first for tension shared with the protagonist, then read again for all-inclusive tension. You never want to skip the former because you need to be sure to track how the protagonist is feeling throughout. A common error in genre fiction is for the writer to read only for overall tension. The protagonist can end up seeming relatively unaffected inside, as if he or she is shallow or amnesic. Good genre fiction has characters with authentic feelings.

8. Rhythm of Language

The rhythm of language itself makes a huge difference, both in creating tension and in sustaining it. Think of the oral storytelling tradition: holding an audience spellbound is about how a story is told as well as what is said. (See Making a Moment Count.) The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music that contributes hugely to our experience of tension. These rhythms reach readers directly, akin to sensory data and figurative language.

The trick here is to match the rhythms of language to your intent. For example, try short, quick sentences for the kind of tension that goes with action. Experiment with sentence fragments when a character is under the most pressure. Try the probing quality of an extended sentence when the tension is mounting internally as a character moves toward unwelcome truth. Use the ends of paragraphs to leave a lasting impression. Held notes vs staccato. But don’t be afraid to mix it up either. The best music has variety as well as harmony, surprise as well as balance.

9. Final Thoughts

Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. But as writers, we always need to exert some control. We want our instruments to be harmonizing – our subtler sources of tension to complement the larger ones. In addition, less is needed to sustain tension than to create it. Small content- or sensory-based hints will keep hearts thumping.

We also need to be careful of overwriting for tension. Restraint works better than hyperbole. Histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with lots of showy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. Listen as you write to see what affects you the most. When you’re not writing, read books known for their powerful writing and learn from them.

Remember, too, that pace is different from tension. Tension can be slow, inexorable, quiet – too quiet. Hearing the machinery click in an empty room. Letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. Details stand out that we didn’t notice before. In this way, a moment can take on significance and seem to enlarge. It can become a place for increased focus and sharpened perception.

Most of all, trust your gut. These are the kind of decisions that artists make. You’re an artist. This is what artists do.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them, beginning with Tension: The Secret to Storytelling and concluding with this post.

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.

Tension Begins with Character Tension Series Part 2

People often think of tension in fiction as arising mostly from plot. If we were to put any character in the circumstances facing Harry Potter, wouldn’t there be tension? Let’s say Hermione were the protagonist. We’d still be worried if she attempted to take on Lord Voldemort. Of course, he wouldn’t have killed her parents, so she’d lack Harry’s obsession. She might be more sensible and let others lead. The wizarding world wouldn’t be the only real home she’d ever known, so maybe she’d give up at some point and move back in with her parents. The fight is personal to Harry, and that’s where tension starts.

What a protagonist wants or needs brings stakes to the action. Stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot. Stakes mean that what happens matters. Tension mounts when wants or needs are obstructed (see Tension: The Secret to Storytelling) – the clash of oppositional forces, and not just in the plot, but on the level of character.

For the greatest tension, oppositional forces should be carried within the protagonist. The kind of characters who are out of balance inside. Whose survival systems are being exhausted, but who are still in resistance to change. Who are stuck in old patterns of behavior that are holding them back. Whose fears are blocking what they most desire or need.

Tension in character comes from these sorts of fundamental inner conflicts: resistance to change versus a need to change; fear versus desire. We get both the tension of the conflict and the tension of uncertainty. What will the character do?

As writers, we can increase this tension by pulling on both ends: making the want or need more significant and the inner resistance or fear even stronger. The outer setbacks and obstacles in the plot should give teeth to the conflict inside. The antagonist in the plot should be like a dark shadow cast by the protagonist’s flaws – the person he or she might become if he or she fails to change and grow. (More about plot will follow later in this series.)

Having our protagonists carry the potential for darkness makes them more credible and human. In any case, being a victim isn’t enough. If your protagonist is only in trouble from outside forces, you deny yourself the power of an interior arc of growth and change. You also risk compassion fatigue. But another reason is that inner conflict is a valuable source of tension. You want to use that. As you write, always try moving in the direction of tension to find your most compelling story.

Theme as a source of tension is closely related to character. The oppositional forces inside your protagonist should reflect the tensions in the theme. If you think of the central truth driving your fiction as being what at the deepest level you’re trying to say with your book, then your protagonist should begin in resistance to that truth. (See The Truth Behind Fiction.) Character is an embodiment of thematic tension.

In all these ways, the root of tension is character, no matter what type of fiction you’re writing. Character embodies the theme, drives the stakes, and carries the core tensions that will find their expression in plot. To orchestrate tension on the level of character, the most important thing is to stay aware of how your protagonist feels. This may sound simple, but it’s the hard work of sympathetic imagination. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) Try to internalize your protagonist’s deepest desires and fears to the point of actual physical sensation. To carry his or her core tensions in your gut. To sense what his or her reactions would to be everything that happens and make sure that gets reflected on the page. Not in a bald statement, but in how the characters speak, what they do, how they perceive things, and how they filter experience.

A strong protagonist is a story just waiting to happen. You’ll know you’ve found one by the tension he or she gives off.

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