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.

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.

The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.