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.



Write to Learn

No matter how old I am, September always takes me back to school. What that means for me now is that I find myself taking stock of where I am in terms of my writing. This starts with questions at the practical level, then gets increasingly ambitious. How could I rework my schedule to make more time for writing? Have I neglected to do enough submitting? (Usually, yes.) What do I think of my work in progress? This is where I really begin to take off.

What could I do to take my current novel to a whole other level? What have I never before considered that I could add to my unfinished work? What fresh ideas could I dream up for new fiction? What interesting voices do I long to explore?

More than anything else, September is a perfect time to remind ourselves that we write to learn.

We write to learn about writing. We write to learn about other experiences and lives. We write to learn about the interior landscape of people we can only imagine. Writing is a journey, an exploration. We write to grow as our characters grow.

Fiction is by definition a dynamic exploration. We’re not writing profiles or personality sketches. We’re testing our characters in action against adverse circumstance. Our plots need to challenge our protagonists both inside and out – knocking at their barriers to change – in response to which they will ultimately grow and evolve, or fail to grow and evolve. We don’t know for sure what will happen until we go there with them. Fiction writing depends on sympathetic imagination.

Part of what fires the forward action of a piece is the writer’s own drive to discover. You want to pick characters who intrigue you, even puzzle or worry you; characters who are out of balance; characters who will have important choices to make. You want to write them so they seem true to themselves. Writers may have goals in mind, but until they write it, they can’t know for sure how a given character will react or where the experience will take him or her.

Write to be unnerved. Write to take risks.

Write to become more than you were.



What Makes Us Cry

At the second turn of the Belmont, when American Pharoah opened up his stride and pulled away from the pack, I burst into tears. And I wasn’t alone. In the room, on the screen, over Facebook and Twitter, people were sobbing. Yes, the horse ran a glorious race, but why did we cry? I’ve often wondered the same thing about books. Unlike movies, where the image of people crying stirs a sympathetic response, characters blubbering on the page can make readers detach. Mere sadness isn’t enough. Something more complex and nuanced is required. Books need to earn our tears.

Tears mean the body is involved as well as the mind. Crying comes out of a physical need for release. As readers, we have to care so deeply about the character that the struggle feels like our own. We need to be surprised in a way that gets past our defenses. The character has to want something with primal resonance so the stakes grab us viscerally. Most of all, the writing must stir our souls. Our conscious brains have little to do with it: it’s our bodies that break into tears.

To care so deeply that the problems feel like our own, we have to know and identify with the character. Knowledge comes out of the character being specific and seeming real to us. For this, the writer needs to believe in and care about the character first. Backstory – what brought the character to this point – may be critical to the writer’s connecting with the character, but how much of that to include and when is up to each writer. The important thing here is to write him or her as vividly as you can out of your own deep connection.

Identification is built up through showing a specific character in scene. Even if characters are very different from us, we put ourselves in their shoes when things happen. As they react to events, so do we. This is how identification begins. The reader thinks: if I were her, I’d react that way too. When people talk about a character being sympathetic, it has more to do with our relating to their reactions and desires than it does with lengthy character descriptions.

Readers also need time with a character if they’re expected to care. Writers are often advised to dive into a problem at the start of their book, which can generate a lot of interest and energy, but not usually tears. I’ve been hooked by the tragedies that open some books – such as the death of the mother in The Secret Life of Bees and Swamplandia (these aren’t spoilers: if you flip through their first few pages, you’ll know this before you buy them) – but they don’t make me cry.

The Goldfinch comes close by telegraphing the mother’s death early on, then dropping back to build up to the event in scene, letting us get to know both son and mother before the loss. But this early reveal is more effective at engaging us with the main character – we open up to a more intimate and serious level with him right away – than it is at getting us to cry. We know about the death, so we defend ourselves from caring too much. That takes an element of surprise.

The stakes also have to be big enough. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder tells writers to root their plots in primal drives such as survival and hunger – urges so basic they connect with all of us in a visceral way. What the character wants, we feel ourselves wanting too. This is how our identification becomes complete. Add to that obstacles, setbacks, trying and failing, trying again, courage in the face of bad odds. Achieving these wants can’t be easy. Struggle gets to us. Often it’s not a loss, but the sudden success despite everything that moves us to tears.

Finally, the way you tell the story matters. The beat of words, the rhythm of sentences, the infusing of image with meaning. The storyteller’s art. If you want tears, you need to make these moments count. Poor writing can leave readers cold even if all the other elements are there. Beautiful writing almost seems to pull tears out of readers.

I cried about American Pharoah because it had been so long since anyone took the crown (stakes and surprise) and the way he ran showed me that he had heart and that he cared (character). The other horses running meant that he could still lose (struggle). The race even had a kind of rhythm to it – the pound of hooves, the reach of muscles – that stirred me inside (akin to good writing).

I’m also a sap when it comes to horses, but that’s just me.