Have Your Cake and Tension Too

Tension is key to keeping readers engaged, no matter what type of novel you’re writing. The tension can be overt and driving, as in a mystery, thriller or sci fi fantasy adventure, or it can be subtle and pervasive, as in a more literary novel. We read to see all sorts of tension resolved. But happy or fun moments may also be an important part of your story. The trick is how to design the happier scenes so that they augment, rather than diminish, the ongoing tension.

1. Happiness under threat

Happiness under time pressure or other threat acts to increase the tension. In The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, the central characters Henry and Clare share many joyful and tender scenes, but the tension never eases. Henry’s involuntary time traveling may whip him away at any second, putting their happiness under constant threat. Niffenegger figured out a clever way to fracture the implications of mortality. But you can accomplish a similar effect without resorting to time travel, and endangered romance doesn’t need to be your central plotline. Generally speaking, if someone or something which your main character cares about is threatened by other characters or further developments, then that happiness will add to the stakes. Your readers can enjoy the fun as it unfolds, but will keep reading to make sure it continues – or returns.

2. Humor

We’re all familiar with the idea that humor breaks tension. Readers love to laugh with characters under pressure as they make wry comments on what confronts them, or at them as they make crazy mistakes. Tension sets us up for humor because of the contrast between the big picture and the smaller, wonderfully human response. Humor can also be quite revealing. Fortunately, to break tension doesn’t mean to end it, as long as the larger reasons for the tension haven’t been undermined. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has his characters act out hilariously as part of their own nervous reaction to tension, and in doing so make everything worse. The same is true in White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. If you make sure to keep your characters under pressure and out of balance, then a bit of humor can slightly relieve your readers’ nerves without letting them off the hook.

3. Hope

At the midpoint of a novel, the plot arc typically crests when the main character’s experiences to that point begin to succeed in moving him or her toward change. The challenges of the external plot lead to an internal moment of enlightenment at the midpoint, which opens the way in the external plot from the fear of change to the courage to fight. Assuming your protagonist has been in resistance to the thematic truth driving your novel – as further discussed in my post on The Truth Behind Fiction – then this is where that resistance begins to break. The moment of enlightenment 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, and it can if the character has nothing further to accomplish, but if instead the biggest change has only happened inside the character and he or she still has to take action to fulfill the goals of the plot, then a grace period will actually increase the stakes and magnify the tension.

All these techniques depend on crafting your happy, humorous, and hopeful moments to be integral to the main character and reflective of the deepest thematic truth of your story. They shouldn’t read like a side show or commercial break. Your protagonist may start in resistance to your truth, but the possibility of happiness can create stakes, humor can reveal character, and hope can propel us toward real change.

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.

Hungry Writers and Smart Readers

This site is for writers and readers both. I can’t separate the two. Growing up, I was Summer Readingthe kind of kid who wrote in the attic and read in a hollowed-out hedge. The characters in books were as alive to me as my own – they’d have adventures together in my head. When I first saw the film of a favorite story, Peter Pan, I loved it, but was startled that what I saw on the screen didn’t match up with my vision. My Peter had more of an edge (and was rather hot). Writing and reading are a collaborative act. The writer takes the lead, but together we do more than apart. The minds of writers and readers connect through the act of reading to forge something new and unique.

Writers can anticipate this by reading our own work as a smart reader would. To allow our minds to visualize, our guts to react and our brains to question, even as we revise stories that we’ve worked on for months. If your stomach tightens, then that’s a good bet that the tension is working. If it doesn’t, then you need to consider what would increase the stakes. Continue to read other people’s work, both to learn more about writing and to train yourself in how to be a better reader of your own. Writers should hunger – to create characters that yearn to breathe, to tell stories that need telling, to reach readers that would care. To become a stronger writer with each sentence you lay down.

I see us all as hungry writers and smart readers, deserving of inspiration, celebration and support. I want this to be a place you can go to learn and be valued. A place for connecting through story, mind to mind, heart to heart.

Photo credit: “Summer Reading” by Sheila Sund via a Creative Commons License.