Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes on Craft: Tension




I love stories, whether they’re told by mouth, expressed through song, or acted out on film.  But more than anything, I love books.  I suppose the one feature that makes books different from these other genres is the pace at which the story unfolds.  I can read a book at whatever pace I choose.  Some books are only good enough for short bathroom breaks, while others are so well written I can barely put it down long enough to get my chores done.  So what’s the difference between them?  What makes a book a page-turner?

There are many elements that make up a good story.  While characters may or may not be likeable, they must be vivid and dynamic.  Dialogue must snap with electricity and be free of accompanying actions that bog down the pace.  Every scene must crackle with both inner and outer conflict conveyed through specific and identifiable turning points.  Setting must come alive not through eloquent writing, but through how the characters wrestle with their emotional ties to it.  The voice, more than just syntax, should sing clearly in detail and delivery, articulating a belief system and personal perspective while overwhelming the reader with authority and relieving us of skepticism.  So how does a writer accomplish each of these?  That’s easy.  Through tension.

As writers, we understand that a story has ebb and flow, a cycle of ups and downs.  But you cannot construct a story that is always on the upswing.  A reader cannot appreciate such an upswing unless there is a downswing with which to contrast it to.  And in order to keep the reader’s attention through a downswing, you must maintain tension.  Literary agent, Donald Maass, calls this micro-tension in his book “The Fire in Fiction.”  In it he says:


Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

Maass portends that micro-tension is vital in all aspects of a novel, whether it be in dialogue, in action sequences, or in exposition.  And more importantly, “micro-tension...comes from emotions, and not just any old emotions, but conflicting emotions.” 


Dialogue in a novel should never be truly natural, which is often stilted with interruptions.  If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point.  Maass writes, “In dialogue, it’s not the information itself, but the doubt about the facts and the skepticism of the deliverer.”  It is “emotional, not intellectual,” that as readers, “we don’t want to know if the debate will settle the point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.”   Also important, dumping information via dialogue only works “if it is infused with tension, and even then, it must be a tug-of-war.”  

This element of emotion is equally important in action.  Emotion, especially contrasting emotion, is what provides energy for each scene.  The same can be said for exposition, where the use of conflicting emotion keeps the reader involved.  They want and need to know if the characters will resolve their conflict.  This is where we learn of their “contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas…It puts the character’s heart and mind in peril,” explains Maass.

One area in a novel that frequently looses steam due to a lack of tension is backstory.  This is at its worst when backstory is used up front, before the story even has a chance to get started.  We lose interest simply because we don’t care about all those bits the author thinks we need to know in order for the story to make sense.  James Scott Bell calls this a first page mistake and warns never to front load with backstory, noting it will only serve to stall instead.  Maass contends that backstory may be added as long as it is not the point.  The point, he says, “is to set up the conflict of emotions and inner tension.”  He suggests using the past to create present conflict, that this will “stir curiosity to find out what will happen.

So while tension is not the only aspect of a successful page-turner, it is of primary importance.  After reading “The Fire in Fiction,” I read through my own manuscript.  For the most part, I did have tension is every paragraph, but I where it lagged, I pumped it up using the techniques described in Maass’s book.  I highly recommend it as a necessary tool on craft for every writer. 

Read through your own manuscript.  Is tension present in every chapter, paragraph, or sentence? 

35 comments:

Al Penwasser said...

This was a great post. I'm going to look at the book I'm writing with all this in mind. Since it's an autobiographical work, if I don't care about the main character (that would be...me), then I really have a problem.
Thanks!

Freya Morris said...

Great post Nancy - really gets me thinking.

What does it say on the first picture of the man being pulled two ways? Really curious and its a bit too small for me. : )

Eva Gallant said...

Excellent post! Makes me want to read his book.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I need to get his book. After reading this, I now feel like I suck.

Lisa L. Regan said...

Awesome post. I really need to read that book, especially since I'm working on my WIP right now!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wonderful post. Lots to think about since I need to finish editing WIP #1 and start editing my NaNo project. Ugh.

"If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point."

This dude's attended some of my city council meetings. Zzzzzz

Jessie Humphries said...

This is my next revision actually. A conflict loading, tension maximizing in every scene kind of revision. And I like Donald Maass' books too:)

Jennifer Hillier said...

I was all excited to buy this book at ThrillerFest last summer, but when I got to the table, it was sold out! Thanks for the reminder, I just put it in my B&N cart.

Laila Knight said...

I lovet his concept of edge of the seat tension. As usual, this is a great post on the craft of writing. We can always turn to you for useful information. :)

Oh, I hope you got my email. I sent it out at the last second yesterday before I had to head out the door.

Have a great day, Nancy! :)

mooderino said...

Hi Nancy,

Great post. I think often the problem for writers is to be able to identify the less obvious tensions in a story. The major stuff is pretty clear, but the little things, the way to present a mundane conversation or activity so as to infuse it with tension is a little harder to gauge.

I found the Maass book really interesting and useful, but as soon as I went back to my own writing I found the ideas start slipping away and I had to really concentrate to work out where the tension was missing and how to put more in. If only I could get Maass to read it for me and tell me what to do...

mood
I don't think it matters at all. As long as it needs to be.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino
The Funnily Enough

M Pax said...

I've read books I've enjoyed at all types of pacing -- some fast & furious, and some slow and meandering.

Scene & Structure goes over the same stuff by Jack Bickham. Probably the best $10 I ever read. I'll have to check this one out. Thanks. :)

Lynda R Young said...

Fabulous post with wonderful detailing on the importance and use of tension. :)

Peggy Eddleman said...

Oh, my goodness-- this is SUCH a great post! It's chock full of goodness! I think I should read it like every day.

Joylene said...

Excellent post. I'm a huge Maass fan. I've done his workbook Writing the Breakout Novel a few times. Your posting is a great source of what to do while structuring a book. Thanks, Nancy!

Carrie Butler said...

Great post, Nancy! I'm going to bookmark it, so I can read it again. :D

Alleged Author said...

I do love it when a novel has tension. It keeps me reading. Great post!

Melodie Wright said...

Nice post, Nancy! It clearly relates to mystery/thriller/romance genres - but what about literary? I've ready many a literary novel that meanders like a slow walk thru the woods w/ no real tension. I'd love to hear what Maass has to say about that.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I have The Fire in FIction, it's such a great help. :) It also inspires me to write more, so I can practice the techniques. It's great. :)

Empty Nest Insider said...

This book sounds like the perfect road map to publishing! It's so true about dialogue as many people just ramble on in everyday conversation. Now I'm going to have to wear a stopwatch so I can catch myself. Thanks for this very insightful post, and I really appreciate your kind words! Julie

Murees Dupé said...

Hey Nancy! I have an award for you, waiting on my blog, please stop by whenever you can.

Patti said...

I've been thinking a lot about this as I'm planning out my next book.

Kittie Howard said...

Great information and terrific food for thought!

Nancy, thank you for stopping by. I just want to share that I've followed your comments with interest that's lingered - you and your hub are in my prayers that all will turn around soonest.

I am in total awe of your optimism. I shared your inspiring true-grit out-look with my hub. He said to please hang in there. He (and so many colleagues/friends with various companies) are not happy about how these companies are cooking' the stats. These companies are rolling in the loot (over a trillion dollars just sitting there) and could hire if they wanted to. There's hope the enormous increase in consumer purchases will force their hands.

In all of my years, I've never seen a situation like what's going on now and am relying more and more on Depression-era survival techniques I heard from parents/grandparents. Number One: A smile on the lips and tenacity in the heart. You're going to make it work, Nancy! Hugs!

Lydia Kang said...

I remember hearing about micro-tension for the first time and though, "huh, that sound like a geek term." Which it is, for writers! Microtension is so important. Keeps those pages turning.

L'Aussie said...

Great post Nancy. I love Donald Maas' how tos. He got me started with Writing the Breakout Novel. Well I haven't finished a breakout yet, but I'm trying!

Denise

Elizabeth said...

Nice blog...great posts.

NEW FOLLOWER

Elizabeth

http://silversolara.blogspot.com

Deana said...

Great post Nancy. I have to agree with everything Maass said. When I read a book, it is the conflict (as mad as it makes me sometimes) that keeps me reading.
I will have to keep my eyes open in my own work for this.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

The Fire in Fiction is such a great book. Donald Maass is a genius, IMO. Take the micro-tension idea, for example. It makes perfect sense and can transform a manuscript. I keep this book on my desk and grab it to reread often. Wonderful post, Nancy.

Jasmine Walt said...

I think I will have to get my hands on a copy of that book. I'm fairly good at balancing action and exposition with tension, but there's always room for improvement! :)

Adam said...

great post

Jen Daiker said...

Fabulous post!!!! This sounds one amazing book. I believe there are never too many books out there! Thank you for sharing!!

YA Tournament of Heroines: Hermione is my Heroine... Care to join?

farawayeyes said...

Interesting advice adding to my insecurities. I must read this book. Thanks.

richardphughes@bellsouth.net said...

Maass writes good books on how to write books. Enjoyed your post. So much for writers to think about.

R. Jacob said...

Thanks for explaining why I like what I read. I love information along with the story. It keeps me happy and on edge at the same time.

Claire Hennessy said...

Great info - thanks for sharing. Over from QQQE blog as loved the query for your book, though slightly scared of you with your Russian mafia background! LOL

The Golden Eagle said...

Great post on tension!

I'll have to see if I can find that book.