Monday, April 23, 2012

A to Z Challenge: T is for Tension




is for Tension:  mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement.  (Dictionary.com)

I've posted about this topic before.  If there is one hard and fast rule for writing a novel, it’s this:

Tension all the time, on every single page! 

After all, tension is what keeps the reader reading.  If it drags or slows down, the reader skims.  If it’s high, the reader slows down and reads every word.  It’s this moment-to-moment micro-tension that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next.  And this micro-tension comes from conflicting emotions.

A novel needs conflict in its dialogue, yet it’s not the information in the dialogue itself that creates tension, but rather the doubt about those facts and the apprehension of the character delivering it.  It should be emotional rather than cerebral.  The reader doesn’t want to know if the discussion will settle the argument, but whether they will make peace.  So dumping info via dialogue only works if it’s soaking in tension, if it’s a tug-of-war.  Zone in on the emotional friction instead of relying on the circumstances.  Allow emotions, especially contrasting emotions, to give force to the action. 

Same goes for exposition; use the conflicting passions of the characters to keep the reader reading to see if the conflict will be resolved.  A character wrestling with his own mind can generate dramatic tension, too, if you include contradictions, crises, opposing impulses, and clashing doctrine.     

Each scene in a novel should have its own mini arc: a beginning, rise, and a climax or reversal.  Afterwards, the hero may contemplate what just occurred before he moves on, but this inner dialogue or exposition should be used only to deepen the crisis and increase the tension, not to reiterate what the reader already knows.  Backstory is a common low-tension pitfall.  It’s acceptable to add it in as long as it’s not the goal.  Use the past to devise tension in the current conflict as it will make the reader curious and want to keep reading to find out what will happen.

Tension is not present in a setting or predicament.  Description does not create tension.  It comes from within those observing it, from the people inside the setting and circumstances.  One place is as ordinary as any other until you populate it with people and their problems.  And when you present the problem before the place, the setting may become a metaphor. 

I used this device in my novel.  The ever-shifting San Francisco fog became a metaphor for trouble.  Whenever something bad was about to happen, you can bet the fog would be swirling around in the background, creating a cue that the tension was building and about to explode. 

Is the tension in your story immediate, credible, personal, unavoidable, and most of all, urgent?  What tricks do you use to keep the reader reading?   

19 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Is it just me or does the more one learn about writing the less one feels he is doing it right?

jp said...

My tension is all at the wrong end of the pen :(

Cortney Pearson said...

For me, I write the main points of each scene on a note card and make sure they each have a goal, a way to keep the MC from reaching that goal, and a way that raises the stakes in the story. Tension is definitely good (in a story, anyway)!

Lynn Proctor said...

lots of good thoughts to ponder--thanks

Eva Gallant said...

You should publish this series in an ebook on Kindle. I would totally buy it!

Pearson Report said...

Hi Nancy - excellent "T" post. I'm a huge fan of creating tension and stirring emotions (both on paper and in real life, haha)

I really enjoyed this post.
Jenny @ Pearson Report
Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Wow! Great post! Tension makes the hugest difference to a reader! Sometimes it's easy to forget.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Oooo, having live in San Fran I love the way you say you've used the fog. Creepy! I will need to remember this when your book comes out.

Laura Marcella said...

Hello, Nancy! Tension is so important. Some people think stories should be started with action, but I think starting with tension is way more effective.

Have a great week and happy A to Z!!

Anthony J said...

I love it! not just the tension the whole theme now if i sit down and read everything you write i might just be able to start on my book ( which will not be longer than 15 pages but still!) can't wait for your book to be published, nice meeting you miss Nancy

Kelly Barnes said...

Excellent post.

One of tricks I use is similar to your fog example. I like to ascribe motive to the setting (a city quarter) as the people go about doing its bidding.

Jay Noel said...

I make sure to keep the stakes high, and the GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict) running in every chapter.

Jay Noel said...

Oh, and thanks for the steampunk blog recommendation. Adam's blog is right up my alley!

Carrie Butler said...

As a romance writer, I feel obligated to mention... sexual tension. ;) Great post, Nancy!

Chuck said...

Second site I have read about tension (first one was actually Tense) and I learned valuable stuff on both. Thanks Nancy for sharing your skills!

Chuck said...

Second site I have read about tension (first one was actually Tense) and I learned valuable stuff on both. Thanks Nancy for sharing your skills!

David Wagner said...

Never thought about tension in this manner before. Sounds like good advice to me! Usually, if my scenes get too tense, I'll give them a nice backrub to alleviate the tension... looks like I've been going about it all wrong!

That, or I'll add a few fart jokes... that'll loosen up any crowd!

Thanks for the new way to look at things.

Dave the Goof

LindaDellaDonna said...

I believe writing is a well-traveled journey. I learn something new every time I read another writer's work. Brilliant blog. Outstanding blog post. Thank you for sharing.

See you in print,

Linda Della Donna
www.bookorbust.blogspot.com

Lisa Regan said...

I'm still working on this! Experimenting. As you know, I like to use the past a lot in my books so I struggle with working in the back story without slackening the tension!