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.



Voice is a Verb

Three riddles, all with the same answer: When we talk about inborn talent in writing, what do we mean more often than anything else? What attribute is most likely to make a novel leap off the page? What do many people write entire novels without understanding, despite its centrality and importance to modern fiction? Voice. Hard to teach and even harder to learn, except for those writers for whom it seems as natural as breathing.

Voice is often defined in terms of attitude, especially in first person, but it’s more than that. Voice gives us our lens, our scope, our storytelling rhythms, our sensibilities, our figurative language, and our potential for insight. Each new voice opens up fresh territory to us and confines us at the same time. Mark Haddon does a brilliant job of rendering the narrative voice of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it has none of the edgy self-reflection which Joseph Heller brings to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. How could it? When a writer finds a voice, she or he also finds a particular take on this world – a unique way of experiencing and processing life. In first person, the writer essentially inhabits the main character, akin to playing a part.

The ownership of voice is more complex in third person. At one end of the continuum are novels in which the narrator is clearly distinguishable from the characters and makes comments, such as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte or, more recently, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. At the other end are novels in which the third-person narration seems to be at one with the words, thoughts, and attitudes of the main character. The technique of free indirect style may be used to achieve a certain elasticity, at times moving closer to the main character and then farther away. This allows the writer to open up dramatic irony, as in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, when Olive stands next to Jack Kennison as he lies in bed, both of them widowed, aging, and alone (pg 269):

“God, I’m scared,” he said, quietly.

She almost said, “Oh, stop. I hate scared people.” She would have said that to Henry, to just about anyone. Maybe because she hated the scared part of herself – this was just a fleeting thought; there was a contest within her, revulsion and tentative desire.

These insights somehow belong both to Olive, the character, and to the barely visible narrator. It’s as if the writer has stepped into the character and written from that inside place, but at the same time retained a kind of privileged discernment. Still, the dominant personality of the voice remains the character’s own. This type of voice may also progress through a series of characters in turn, colored differently for each one, as is the case in Strout’s book. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the voice shifts in every section, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, each time taking on a markedly different set of attitudes and manner of speaking, in a tour de force on the power of voice.

I say elsewhere in these pages that fiction is the art of human empathy. Voice is that empathy given flesh. When we refer to “finding” a voice, we’re talking about the work of sympathetic imagination. Voice isn’t simply a noun, a thing, a conclusion; it’s also a verb, an action, a state of becoming. To voice is to express, to make known, to reveal. Voice is the ultimate show rather than tell: the distillation of our main characters’ personalities and histories into the very way in which we tell their stories.



The Love of a Writer

Love amazes me, more often this time of year than any other. The love that drives an exhausted parent to endure the bright plastic torture of Toy R Us. The love that keeps a smile on the face of a Salvation Army bell ringer long after most of us would have left that bucket to fend for itself. The love that makes us tear up when the season brings back a stray memory of someone once dear to us. Love of family, love of friends, love of faith. One of the most striking things about fiction is how it can trigger love in us for people who aren’t even real. But I think it goes further than that: without the capacity for love, we wouldn’t have fiction writing. Fiction is the art of human empathy.

How many of us have been so worried about a character that we couldn’t bear to stop reading well past a sane bedtime? Literary or genre fiction, for adults or children, it doesn’t matter: if the character is well crafted, we care. The third and fourth Harry Potter books kept me up for a week. I’m still worried about Theo in Goldfinch. When distressed about the plight of overworked horses in England, Anna Sewell turned a horse into a distinctive character and engaged the sympathies of a nation. After all these years, I can’t get through a single chapter of Black Beauty without choking up.

Love happens with a character similar to how it happens in life. We as readers have to meet someone very specific and real. Not perfect. We need to perceive that he or she faces challenges, just as we face challenges. We need to see attributes that we can relate to, such as humor, self-deprecation, courage, vulnerability, determination. We need to feel that the character truly wants something to stir our wanting it for him or her. The problems need to be big enough to engage our sympathies and interest. And there need to be details – lots of telling details – to conquer disbelief and break down our defenses.

But the key is that love must happen first with the writer. We as writers need to believe in our characters and be fully engaged with their struggles. We need their reality to break down our own defenses as well. I finally fell in love with my newest protagonist a few weeks ago, after months of fine tuning her voice, delving her history, and reimaging her story. Before that, I had an unusual character who interested me, the beginnings of a voice, an original premise, problems that I wasn’t yet sure how to solve . . . but I wasn’t carrying the character in my heart. I had to keep asking her questions. Why do you care so much? What are you afraid of? Why does that hurt? What do you hope for? I had to discover her past to care about her present, even if not all of it would appear in the book.

Loving your characters doesn’t mean you should shield them. It means you should trust them, and trust yourself. You need to throw life at them, be hard on them, push them farther out to sea. Force them to become more than they were. Love means you care about them despite their foibles, but it also means you need to respect their right to make mistakes and grow. The love of a true friend or wise parent, or maybe we need to create a new category: the love of a writer.

At heart, isn’t that why we do this? For love. It’s the only way this crazy business makes sense. To share with others the stories of people whom we can only imagine, and yet believe are worthy of real empathy and understanding. Worthy of love.