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!



Movement with Meaning

Real people are never still. Gesture and movement are part of our language. They usually complement what’s being said, but they can also tell us things the speaker didn’t mean for us to know. Our experience of people guides our interpretation. Because readers come equipped to understand body language, writers can use it to show rather than tell. We don’t want to clutter the page with insignificant movements that readers will simply tune out (see Resisting Your Own Autosuggest), but well-chosen gestures and movements present opportunities for writers:

1. Enriching Character. Distinctive, authentic gestures convey personality. We recognize people by the way they do things. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, when Boris pulls his chin back or pinches his nostrils shut, we feel that we know him. Only he would blow his nose sloppily, inspect the contents of the Kleenex and wince (p. 564). Body language can also open up depth, especially in characters reluctant to reveal themselves. When Boris leaves Theo behind in that scene – “his gait loosening and lightening as soon as he thought he was out of my view” (p. 565) – we immediately grasp that Boris has been hiding something from Theo and realize how tenuous their bond has become.

2. Invoking Sympathy. Small movements can be a subterranean way of engendering sympathy for characters who evoke a mixed response. An example here could be an embittered woman speaking hard truths to a child, but having that woman’s hands open for a moment, then close as if with regret. Imagined actions can be even more subtle – those considered and not taken – as contemplated within a close point of view. In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (p. 180): “She would like to rest a hand on Marlene’s head, but this is not the kind of thing Olive is especially able to do. So she goes and stands near the chair Marlene sits on, gazing out that side window there, looking down at the shoreline….” Olive’s urge to touch Marlene makes her sympathetic, but her inability to do so is heartbreaking.

3. Creating Layers. Gestures and staging can contrast with narration and dialogue to set up an unreliable narrator, in books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins. They act as our clues. Contrasts like these can also be mined for irony and humor or built up to increase the tension. Jennifer Egan does both in A Visit from the Goon Squad (pp. 180-183) when, in contrast to the typical back and forth of an entertainment interview, the reporter keeps taking little inappropriate actions such as staring at the movie star’s legs. Finally, he experiences an urge to push her back on the grass and then does, which launches a scene of full-blown action, while retaining the tone of dark absurdist comedy.

4. Marking Transitions. Movement can be of great practical use to a writer. For instance, small actions can be used in place of attributions like “said.” Movement draws the reader’s attention; we assume whoever moves is the one who speaks. Similarly, gestures can help us to transition between current time and memory or between dialogue and thought. Not only does movement draw the eye, a gesture can carry a sense of intimacy that invites us deeper. In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (p. 330), we move seamlessly from outside to inside the character of Jaslyn: “She rubs her hands together, nervously. Why, still, this small feeling of tightness at her core?”

5. Inspiring Discoveries. Gestures are easy for writers to improvise – to try on, if you will. They may open up paths we didn’t know we were on. They encourage us to surprise ourselves by making our scenes more real and vivid and may lead us to unexpected discoveries. All of us – writers as well as readers – interpret body language without consciously meaning to. Remember always to picture how your characters would move as they speak and listen and think, and you may find yourself learning something important and new about them.



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.