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 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.



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.



Thoughts Without Strings

One of the greatest pleasures in reading is getting to settle into someone else’s head for a while. Point of view can be seen as another way of saying whose thoughts we get to hear. One of the attractions of first-person narration is that the transitions from observation to thought to action can be so seamless. In a sense, an entire novel in first person is a confiding of thoughts by its protagonist, particularly if it’s written in past tense. The writer has no need to use quotation marks or italics or attributions such as “I thought” or “I wondered,” unless those verbs need to be emphasized in some specific situations. Otherwise, the first-person character’s thoughts should flow onto the page as they come to mind based on her experiences. “Sam came into the room, but he didn’t meet my eyes. He’d lost weight. From missing me? If only that were true. June followed close behind him; he smiled and reached back his hand for a squeeze. The smile creased his cheeks – he looked fit, younger, stronger even. Free.” What the character observes, how she feels about it, and whatever else it makes her think of, including memories, are all of one piece.

What may surprise you is that the same can be accomplished in close third person by using free indirect style.

James Woods does a masterful job of explaining free indirect style in his chapter on “Narrating” in How Fiction Works. He contrasts three different approaches to the sharing of thoughts in third person.

(1) Quoted: He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.

(2) Reported: He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

(3) Free indirect style: He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?

As Woods goes on to explain, narration in free indirect style seems to float away from the writer toward the character. The voice coloring the words becomes the character’s own. It is in this way that a novel written from a third-person limited point of view can be just as saturated in its protagonist’s voice as a novel written from a first-person point of view. But in third person, the barely visible narrator also retains a slight hold on the words – an ability to open up dramatic irony by encouraging the reader to see more than the character may see. In Woods’ example, I think the word “tiresomely” could be read as the character’s own, or it could be read as a knowing observation about the character’s feelings on the part of the writer, or possibly a bit of both. This complexity and richness is part of the appeal of third person. With free indirect style, the writer has the flexibility to shade language like this, as well as to zoom in and out seamlessly.

If you’re new to free indirect style, you should begin by eliminating the direct attribution of thought and instead let yourself move toward the character’s own way of putting things, without shifting out of third person or past tense (assuming that’s the tense you’ve been in). Any reporting or quoting of thought should be avoided – that would risk breaking the spell. Small actions and other visual clues can work to signal that we’re going in closer. (See Movement With Meaning.) Don’t be afraid to use fragments or lists to represent thought. The more agitated or emotionally affected a character is, the more likely she is to think in fragments. You may find yourself wanting to use swear words – James does in his example – swear words seem to give writers the sense that they’re pulling unvarnished thoughts out of their characters’ heads. You can always tone it down when you edit. Sometimes it helps to write a section in first person and then do it over in third. The more you work in free indirect style, the more natural it will seem. You’ll still need to go digging for the deepest and most surprising thoughts you can get your character to reveal. (See Pushing Your Characters Deeper.) But free indirect style will give you a tool to get there in third person – to write closer to the bone – with greater flexibility, style and grace.