Orchestrating Tension Writing Workshop at OCWW

Please join me at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop on April 7, 2016, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, for my workshop on the art of Orchestrating Tension.

Tension may well be the storyteller’s deepest magic. Tension is the secret to both your hook and your hold: the pulse that keeps readers turning the page. Tension can range from subtle and psychological to big and action-based – the stuff of profound literary work or gripping genre fiction or wonderfully addictive stories for kids. Once established, tension reverberates under the surface, akin to a movie score. You can build it up or quiet it down, blending different kinds of tension like music. As author, you’re both the composer and the conductor. This workshop will cover the various sources of tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them.

The workshop will take place at the Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, in Winnetka, north of Chicago. Members: $10; nonmembers: $15. All are welcome. Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by sending them by email to OCWW VP Fred Fitzsimmons at fredfitz@gmail.com no later than Monday, April 4, 2016. Critique fees are $15 up to 15 pages and $25 up to 25 pages. Manuscripts must follow the guidelines posted on OCWW’s website.

I hope to see you there!

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.

Making a Moment Count

Bring up the music, cue the lights, zoom in the camera – when movie directors want to make a moment bigger, they can bring a lot of tools to bear. Writers only have words, but that doesn’t mean they can’t invest a moment with similar power. Orchestrating the score is part of crafting a novel: making some moments bigger and others smaller, changing pace, holding a note, building to a crescendo, and quieting down. Making a moment count isn’t simply a question of content. Writers can also use the rich harmonics of storytelling.

1. Rhythm and Beat

Every word in a sentence has its own beat. Every sentence in a paragraph imparts rhythm. Every paragraph in a chapter, every chapter in a book. Writers hear this instinctively. The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music. For example, when the action in your book speeds up, you want your sentences to reflect this by getting shorter and quicker. When the action slows, you want your sentences to stretch. Storytelling is at base an oral tradition. Research shows that as we read, we speak the words aloud in our head. (In the Brain, Silent Reading is the Same as Talking to Yourself.) Rhythm is an integral part of how writers coax others to listen and believe. To make a moment count, pay attention to the rhythms building up to it, and try to push them to open up and expand. But letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. If it helps, think of the tension driving the scene as a note you’re sustaining in the midst of an increased complexity of sound.

2. Time and Details

Longer sentences not only slow the pace, they sink us in time. They reflect that our characters are caught in a moment and time seems to suspend. Details stand out that they wouldn’t have noticed before. Racing down a hall, your protagonist wouldn’t notice the sweat on his lover’s face, but hiding in a dark corner, dead silent, two inches away from each other, he’d notice the way a droplet pools over her lip that she doesn’t dare wipe away. In this way, a moment can enlarge even in the middle of action. A world within a world seems to blossom. In terms of music, details make me think of Mozart: all those wonderfully precise notes.

3. Depth

Depth is essential to making a moment bigger. For a moment to matter, it must hold stakes for your characters. Your readers need to know that, but this doesn’t have to be a “tell.” You can include details or images that evoke something we know about from earlier in the novel. You can use revealing gestures that give a character’s feelings away. You can add metaphor, either one that carries power on its own or that expands on a previous metaphor – preloaded with meaning. Or you can summon up a vivid memory tied to the senses or captured in a fragment of scene. In other words, to make a moment count, consider deepening to intensify, rather than increasing the action – an emphasis on the vertical as opposed to the horizontal. Let us hear the deep bassoon, the double bass.

4. Restraint

I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but restraint can be more powerful – and sympathetic – than extreme drama. Hyperbole and histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with sobbing characters or lots of pushy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. If this seems difficult, don’t worry when you write your first draft, but later try removing most of the adjectives and adverbs to see what you have left and rebuild from there. The simple, strong melody at the heart of your scene is often the most moving.

More than anything else, remember to listen as you write. Listen and trust your ear.

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via a Creative Commons License.