Saturday, June 4, 2011

How To: Tension

Okay, so I know I haven't dabbled in writing about... well, writing, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Although I've got to put in a disclaimer here: What I found is, if you're trying to improve your writing, read books on writing, study the craft, that's all awesome. But the best way you're going to improve is if you do it yourself. Take what I've said here and experiment with it, play with it. If you decide my advice doesn't work for you, toss it away and do what does work for you. There are a million different ways to write, don't feel limited by my advice. (Or anyone's!)

So today, I'm going to do a little coaching about TENSION.

*Cue music that goes DUN DUN DUN*

Tension is one of my favorite parts of writing or reading a novel. It's not always easy to understand, or easy to implement, but once you have it down you will have readers up all night to read just one more chapter. And isn't that what we all want? Depriving our readers of sleep so in their confused and fuzzy mindset they put down half their paychecks on several hundred extra copies of our books? (You know. Just in case.)

What is tension anyway? Why do we need it? Tension is, essentially, the mystery of the book and its stakes. 90% of the time, it's what draws your reader deeper and deeper into the story, wanting to find out more. It should be on every. Page. Of. Your. Novel. Sometimes it can be hard to put in tension that relates to your main conflict on the first page, or even on every page. And rightly so. How can you give hints or anticipate an event your characters have no idea is coming? Simple. You don't.

Every bit of tension doesn't have to relate back to your main conflict. In fact, it shouldn't. With every piece of the puzzle that fills into your story, the tension should grow.

There are three kinds of tension: The things your characters keep from your reader, the things your narrator keeps from the characters and the reader, and the things your narrator keeps from just your characters.

So let's start where it's simple: the first five pages. How do you introduce tension in the first few pages? One of the easiest ways is to have your character keep something from the reader.

I'm going to use examples from Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, because this woman wrote the book on tension. Seriously. It's fantastic. Anyway, in Healey's opening pages, two of the main characters wake up in a dorm room, and our MC realizes that not only are they late, but they're going to be in trouble. Immediately, the reader is interested. Why are they going to be in trouble? True to her 1st person narrator, Healey doesn't keep the info from the reader for long. We find out the two characters have been drinking, which is against school policy, and the guy with her has to sneak out of the window because he's not allowed in the girl’s dorm.

Well, tension broken, right? We know what the fuss is about. Except Healey doesn't stop there. For a moment the characters discuss what they talked about last night without revealing what they talked about. The reader is immediately interested again because, quite frankly, who can resist gossip?

And so Healey builds on this. Introducing tiny mysteries that seem almost insignificant, but keeps the reader interested long enough for her to get to her main conflict.

So go back and look at your opening pages. Is there anything you could leave to a bit of mystery? It can have absolutely nothing to do with your main plot. It doesn't even have to be that important to the main character, but as long as it keeps the reader interested, it'll keep them turning the pages.

For example, say your main character has to meet her teacher to discuss a grade. If your original text looks something like this:

I was supposed to meet Mrs. Sherman after seventh period to discuss our papers, but I dragged my feet all the way there. Dread was building in the pit of my stomach. Would Mrs. Sherman actually fail me? What if I didn't make that scholarship?

Try to heighten the mystery:

I dragged my feet as I walked, dread building deep in the pit of my stomach. Being late would cost me, I knew, but I couldn't force myself to move any faster. Meeting fate's funny like that. My entire future rested on what Mrs. Sherman thought, and some stubborn part of me refused to be punctual.

The first is pretty standard, and there's nothing overly wrong with it. But the second, if you didn't know the character was meeting a teacher, can trick you into reading further. Though it's not life or death, the reader wants to know why Mrs. Sherman holds so much power over our main character. More so, when dealing with tension, remind the reader of the stakes: The character’s future depends on this meeting, so you understand why this may be crucial to her, even if it’s not crucial to the plot.

This leads me into another point. Some writers like to play Keep Away. This is when the characters all know something, but the reader has no idea what they're talking about. POV characters can only keep things they know from the reader for a little while, but if it doesn't come out, the reader can get frustrated. It's like being left out of a conversation. It's best not to use this method of tension for the whole book. Characters keeping info from readers should be used as tiny bridging tensions that can help bring you to your main conflict.

When you get into your main conflict, you're going to want to use the second form of tension: Your narrator keeps info from both the reader and characters. This is just saying your characters have no idea how the story will turn out, and neither should your reader. Again, we want to tie this further back into the stakes of the novel.

Let's take The Hunger Games as an example for this one. Throughout the Games, we know that Katniss is probably going to win, but we don't know how. And neither does Katniss. This adds tension, but what adds more tension is when we're reminded of what's at stake. Katniss could lose her life, but she could lose more for the people of her district. If you keep reminding the reader why this is so important, they'll feel more of that tension, that desperation that your character is feeling.

So instead of something like:

With the bundle of bread clutched under one arm, Margo ran until her breath was short and every part of her ached. The Marshall was behind her, his horse barreling through the woods as if the twists and turns were no more bothersome than flies.

Let's remind the readers why it's so important Margo escapes:

With a bundle of bread clutched under one arm, Margo ran until her breath was short and every part of her ached. The Marshall was behind her, his horse barreling through the woods as if the twists and turns were no more bothersome than flies. She ducked behind a log and skid down a hill. She couldn't be captured, not here, not now. Not while her brother lay on the edge of death at home. He needed her, and she couldn't let him down.

The last kind of tension is a bit tricky, and should be used sparingly. The information that your narrator keeps just from your characters. If you need an idea of this, imagine a scene in your novel from another point of view, farther from your MC than you've gone before. Usually this is from your villain’s POV. I've used this both in Crash and Shell and it is effective, but not something you want to overuse. Having a scene from a villain’s point of view is great for tension, especially near the climax. All it does, really, is remind the reader what's at stake, and sometimes reveal information that the MC may not know. Perhaps the villain knows the MC is coming and has set a trap? Suddenly the reader is fearful, because they know the MC is in trouble.

If you have your characters feel the desperation, then your reader will feel it too. The clock's ticking, time's running out, your characters have to complete their quest before the villain can thwart them. Show the stakes. Make it seem likely that your good guys will lose. It will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for sure.



1 comment:

  1. Really great points! I usually find that the scenes I need to chop the most are scenes where I've left out any tension... :)