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.



Foibles and Fixes

Creative writing requires recommitment from time to time. Not writing is much easier than writing. Curiously, what many of us find is that although we want to write in theory, we keep letting other things get in the way. If those things involve our health, family or job, then writing may have to wait. But if the problems are our own foibles when it comes to writing, then they may be a form of anxiety avoidance which these strategies may help us to surmount:

1. You love to write, but can’t think of anything to say.

The most common answer to this problem is usually to read. Immersing yourself in great books in your genre will motivate and inspire you. The only difficulty is that sometimes those great books will make you feel more lacking. What could you possibly come up with that hasn’t already been said? My suggestion is that you try reading in a different discipline than your own: poetry to get a fiction writer thinking about character; fiction to lure a poet into diving deeper inside; real-life news articles to spur novelists into creating new “what if”s. Or extend your reach further, such as to the visual arts or music. Try attending a play and jot down notes in the dark. No form of artistic expression is exactly the same in terms of what it does best. If you’re a writer, you’ll sense the holes that writing would delve.

2. You freeze up when faced with an empty page.

This is similar to the first issue, but your anxiety is more formless. You’re so swamped with self-doubt, you can barely bring yourself to try. For this, I strongly recommend Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way. She urges writers to start every morning with three pages of free writing. The only rule of morning pages is that there aren’t any rules. You could start each entry with “I hate blank pages” and complain for ten minutes. Cameron believes all that anxious stuff needs to be expunged. You may also find that within that time, you can’t help but shift from paralyzing fear to a more writerly preoccupation with expression. You think: What a great line of swearing. I should have a character say that! And you’re off. If you don’t want to write morning pages, instead try to limit your writing commitment with a timer. Agree to write for ten minutes – how bad could that be? Most writers find themselves resetting the timer again and again. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reminds us that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

3. You get stuck in the middle of a piece.

Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. The plot sticks or the character becomes unconvincing or the tension flatlines; you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do. Staring at the page in a panic only makes the problem worse. In her excellent New Yorker article, “Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?,” Maria Konnikova explains that a focused gaze works with analytic problem-solving, but when further insight is needed, we need to step away and allow ourselves to think more diffusely. In other words, try coffee first, but if that doesn’t help, then go for a walk. Or switch your attention to another project and mull this one over in the back of your mind. If you prefer to stay on task, another trick for writers is to build up the details of the scene. Convince yourself more completely of its reality. Sometimes it helps to go back to an earlier point in the story and work forward from there. You could also try to free write the scene a few different ways. If nothing else works, go out for a drink with a trusted writer friend and free talk the damn thing.

4. You revise and revise, but never finish.

Many writers struggle to complete anything. As long as you’re still working on it, your novel, story or poem could always improve. You can dream and hope without fear. Rejection only happens if you finish and try to put your work out there. Unfortunately, if you never take that risk, then your work may never be read by others. You need to consider what it is you truly want. First and foremost, you should try to finish a piece for your own satisfaction. Think of seeking publication as a separate event. If you decide to pursue it, but are afraid of rejection, then you could try starting small. Send out a version to test the waters. At the same time, make a list of five more places. Some writers benefit from revising between submissions, but if this is your foible, you may want to resubmit as soon as a piece comes back. If it helps, think of yourself as two people: the creative writer and the businesslike submitter. Strip the process of emotional content as much as possible.

In a novel, when a character really wants something, we expect that to increase the stakes. Unless you have an ego of steel, anxiety is part of being an artist. Whether you’re sinking into other people’s art for inspiration or writing your morning pages or taking your issues for a walk, in every case, what you’re trying to do is block out the negative voices and let your focus return to the work. Resilience is key. Recommit as often as you need to.



Leading Against Your Strengths

Practice is necessary to the development of skills in every field, from work to sports to Metronomeart. Watching Wimbledon this week reminds me of the hours I put into tennis when I was a kid, tossing balls in the air to practice my serve over chalked marks in the driveway, hitting shots against our uneven garage door. Originally my backhand was lousy, but years of leading with it in practice turned it into my best shot. In Jeremy Denk’s fascinating article on his life in piano lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2013), he quoted his teacher, the Hungarian pianist György Sebők, as saying that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice. Practice is where the learning occurs. Good students know what they need to drill.

Writing is unusual in that the most intense practice happens in the course of writing drafts. Even if we attend classes, keep a journal or follow writing prompts, the real work of improving our writing takes place on the ground. We practice on the very same pieces that will become our finished product. Everything that goes into that – all the brainstorming, outlining, writing and rewriting – is both part of perfecting a particular manuscript and part of learning our craft.

I’d like to suggest that you structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. I don’t mean that you should tamper with what inspires you, whether you begin with a character, a plot, an insight or something else. My suggestion comes at the next stage, when you begin to outline or brainstorm scenes. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what if’s of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work in your characters. If dialog is your best shot, then experiment with action and description. If description, then make your characters talk. We all have to deal with our weaknesses when we’re revising: the idea here would be to increase your awareness of those areas at the outset – not only to enrich the manuscript in front of you, but to work on your mastery of writing skills.

Once your manuscript gets going, you’ll naturally play to your strengths. You won’t be able to help yourself from paying attention to the aspects of writing that you love. But if you start by leading against your strengths, then over time your weaknesses should improve in a more integral way, rather than just being something other people always have to tell you to fix at the end.

You know better than anyone else what needs work. Own it. Drill it. Be brave.