Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Reader Investment and the Ticking Time Bomb

I've talked about tension and hooking my reader a LOT on this blog over the years. (Seriously, a lot. Search my blog for tension and you get, like, 20 posts.)

Given all the pixels I've already spilled on the topic, you might think I've already covered every single aspect of writing tension that exists. Well, you'd be wrong! There's always more stuff to say about tension in stories! This is partially because the mechanics of good tension are deep, subtle, and worthy of exploration, but mostly, I talk about tension because tension is really freaking important. More important than characters or plot or any other critical element of writing.

Note that this isn't to say those other things don't matter. They matter a ton! Just try writing a book with cardboard characters and see how far that gets you. It's just that tension matters more, because while you could have the best characters/plot ever committed to paper, no one's ever going to read long enough to see them if your tension sucks. Maintaining good tension is how you keep a reader's attention over the course of your writing, and since 99% of being a successful author is writing shit people want to read, I'm sure you can see how keeping your tension on point is critical to story success.

This is both a great example of narrative tension and a really great book on the subject!

So if you're new to the blog and I've just made you paranoid about your own tension, click here to get caught up! (And if you have no idea what I'm talking about with all this tension stuff, click here for my very first post on the topic to see me work myself into a froth explaining what tension is and why you desperately need it in your life).

For the rest of you old hands (or who just don't want to read back posts), today's tension topic is all about tricks and mechanisms for maintaining tension and reader investment over the course of a scene, chapter, or even an entire book. (And yes, I did just use the word "mechanisms.")

Gird your loins, peeps! It's about to get technical in here!

Writing Wednesday: Reader Investment and the Ticking Time Bomb

So I've already talked about how you can use hooks to grab a reader's attention and yank them into your story like an angler landing a sweet, highly literate fish. (And if you're not sure what a hook is, go read this post.) For maximum effect, most authors use hooks at the very beginning of the story to draw a reader in and then again and again throughout the rest off the text to keep them there. This post is about what happens after the hook has done its job.

Congratulations! Your reader now reading your book! Now: how do you keep them there?

The point of a hook is to make your reader curious enough about your story to read another paragraph, and then another page, and then another chapter, and so forth. Once we’re past those opening pages, though, you've hopefully hooked your reader hard enough that their initial idle curiosity has grown into something greater, a deep caring about this new world they've discovered. This upgraded form of caring is called reader investment, and it’s one of the most precious and useful things you can cultivate as an author.

Unlike hooks, which just have to be cool to work, at least in the beginning, generating true reader investment is a tricky business because it requires actual emotional investment. If you want your reader to stick around for the long haul, you have to give them a reason to care about your characters and your world. To see reader investment in action, just think about the last book you really loved. Chances are, it evoked a real emotional response out of you. Maybe it made you cry, maybe it made you stay up too late, maybe it just made you laugh. Whatever it did, it got to you in some way and dug those hooks in deep--deep enough that they stayed with you even after the story was done.

This is reader investment in action. Most people are naturally empathetic, we care about the stories of those around us. A good writer taps into that to make you get all emotionally involved in people that don't actually exist. The story might be fictional, but the feelings it evokes are real, and those real emotional connections are why people read fiction in the first place.

As you can see, this is some nuclear grade story material, and it's why reader investment is such an important factor for maintaining tension. Any hack can dangle a character off a ledge, but dangle someone your audience REALLY care about, and you're in a whole other ballgame for page turning, white-knuckled-reading, OMG-tell-all-my-friends-about-this readership, which is always our goal.

So how do we go about building this kind of reader investment for ourselves? Well, the biggest part of it is that you have to have characters, a plot, and a world worthy of that kind of reader attention. But assuming you're already working on those things to the best of your ability (and if not, why? Don't you want to give your readers the absolute best?) here are a few tried and true author tricks for rapidly building and holding reader investment.

Character Tension Mechanics: Manipulating Sympathy

For the most part, building a reader's emotional investment in a character is all about finding new and interesting ways to evoke and manipulate your audience's sympathy. The cheapest and most blatant way to do this is to make your character something readers will automatically sympathize with, like a puppy or a child. Once you've got a suitably vulnerable character, building instant reader sympathy and investment is as easy as putting your new character in horrible, unfair, possibly dangerous situation that will immediately make the reader want to keep reading if only to make sure everything turns out okay.

That sounds cheesy as hell when you spell it out, but this is exactly what happens in the first Harry Potter novel. From the opening sentence, we’re introduced to a good, likable boy who is horrifically abused by his foster family and who suffers from strange, scary powers. The beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone focuses entirely on building reader investment in Harry specifically so that, when his invitation to Hogwarts finally arrives, we want Harry to escape just as much as he does.

You're a blatant ploy for reader sympathy, Harry!

But J.K. Rowling is a smart cookie. She knows better than to give us our satisfaction too soon. After building all that instant reader sympathy and tension with poor Harry and his horrible family, she could have cashed in right away and sent Harry off to Hogwarts right in the very first chapter, but she doesn’t. Instead, she has Daddy Dursley rip up Harry’s invitations and forbid him to go.

By putting the Dursleys between Harry (whom we are instantly rooting for due to his incredibly unfair circumstances) and his obvious destiny at Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling has us by the throat. By choosing to draw out the situation and force the characters into conflict, she masterfully leverages all the sympathy she just built up for poor Harry as well as our growing hatred for the closed minded, terrible Dursleys. The result is a maelstrom of tension that forces us to keep reading. We have to know if Harry’s going to make it, and even more, if his horrible foster family is going to get their just desserts.

If J.K. Rowling had just let Harry escape to Hogwarts when the first invitation arrived, the story—and our investment in it—would not be nearly as strong. She made a very smart choice in making things so hard on Harry, because even if it makes your job as an author easier, you never want to let your characters take the easy road. The easy road is boring. There’s no tension there, no struggle or conflict. I’m sure J.K. Rowling wanted to get Harry out of the boring muggle world and into the Wizarding one (and the main plot) as fast as possible, but she doesn’t take the short cut. Instead, she makes Harry (and the reader) work and suffer to reach the promised wizarding land, a plot choice that ensures maximum reader investment in Harry as a main character and (when we finally get there) in the new, magical culture she subsequently introduces through Hagrid and Diagon Alley.

By structuring her plot in this way, not only did Rowling give us a highly entertaining opening, she gave us a hero we were practically compelled to love. She blatantly manipulated our innate sympathy for an abused boy and coupled it with the tension created by the conflict surrounding his abusive relatives to build our reader investment as high and tall and fast as possible. All of this work pays off in spades in when we actually reach the wizarding part of the novel. By the time Rowling is ready to start dropping hints about Harry’s parents and the state of the larger plot, we are 100% on board for this ride and gobbling up every word. Our interest in Harry and his future is now so personal and so deep that the Diagon Alley scenes, which otherwise would be a long form description of a boy going to a bank and buying school supplies, feel incredibly exciting. A pretty impressive feat when you think about it.

So as you see, building and then threatening a reader’s investment in your characters and world is a surefire formula for creating tension. But even this is only part of the arsenal of tension mechanics authors have at their fingertips. Another way you can ensure tension—and therefore page turning—in your book is by employing a ticking time bomb.

Plot Tension Mechanic: The Ticking Time Bomb

There are lots of ways you can use plot mechanics to build reader investment in your world and story, but the ticking time bomb in all its wonderful iterations is my personal favorite. Whenever you include any kind of countdown, time limit, or deadline in your story, tension automatically follows. This trope is especially popular in action books, where heroes are constantly racing against the clock to rescue someone, stop an assassination, or even defuse a literal ticking time-bomb, but (as we'll see) it exists in countless other forms as well.

My favorite literal example of the ticking time-bomb plot mechanic is the action movie Crank. The whole thing opens with the main character—a hitman who’s just failed a job because of an uncharacteristic fit of conscience—learning he’s been injected with a poison that will kill him if his adrenaline drops below a certain level. Armed with this knowledge and burning need for revenge, he then spends the rest of the movie doing progressively crazier and crazier things to keep himself in an adrenaline-soaked fury so that he can live long enough to get back at the people who did this to him. Along the way, the script writers also somehow managed to fit in a surprisingly cute romance with his girlfriend, who didn’t know he was a hitman until this happened, and a solid redemption arc for the main character.

These additional plot elements, which could have slowed a normal movie down, are kept going at a breakneck pace by the constant threat that the main character will die if he lets himself calm down. This ticking time-bomb is the primary source of tension in the story—the crazy spinning wheel that drives everything else—and it works. The whole movie is insane, almost comically over-the-top in places, but the absurdly high tension keeps even the ludicrous scenes from ever feeling goofy or unimportant. And whenever the plot seems like it might be starting to drag, the adrenaline poison mechanic kicks back in, and we’re off to the races again.

But while Crank is an excellently executed example of what happens when you take the ticking time-bomb to its extreme, the same idea works just as well in softer, less intense stories.

Years ago, I watched an anime called Mahoromatic. In this show, the titular main character Maho is a retired battle android who’s no longer fit to fight on the front lines. Burdened by terrible guilt for the horrific things she’d done as a soldier, Maho decides to become a maid working for the son of her former commander as a form of penance. But, of course, things don’t stay that simple as other battle androids show up to continue the war or follow through on old vendettas. but generally speaking the show is a quiet character drama about what happens to weapons when the war is over.The ticking time-bomb part of this comes in at the end of every episode when, since Maho is a retired battle android nearing the end of her usefulness, the show displays how many days of operation she has left.

Expectation: cute moe fluff! Reality: the bitter truth of our own inevitable mortality.

This was an incredibly subtle and powerful use of the countdown tension mechanic. Every episode, we’re watching this former robotic super soldier become more and more human, and every episode, there’s that number reminding us that her life is literally counting down. There’s no bomb, no crisis, just the steady march of time and the inevitability of death. We know there is no escape, that no one gets out of this alive, but we can’t help hoping that Maho will make it. And as the countdown timer sinks lower and lower, the tension and the bittersweet sadness of what would otherwise be a silly show about a battle android robot turned maid who also happens to look like a cute girl becomes almost unbearable.

This is the power of good tension management. It takes characters and situations that might otherwise come across as silly, ridiculous, or boring, and makes them gripping. It makes us care. That’s why it’s so important to always think about tension when you’re considering any sort of plot. You can have the best characters, story, and prose in the world, but if you drop the ball on your tension, if you let that line keeping that reader fish on your fishing pole go slack, then your story is going to come across as uneven, or worse, boring. Boring is what happens when tension fails, and it loses readers faster than any other mistake.

Now, obviously, these are just two examples of tension mechanics in action. There are hundreds more like this, and I'm sure I'll be back to discuss all of them eventually, but what I really wanted to do today was show you how plot is not just plot. The events of a novel aren't just what's happening, they are mechanics, mechanisms powered by tension that drive the highly complex emotional manipulation machine we call story.

I realize that last bit might have sounded a bit scary, and I hope I haven't put you off of any of this. Contrary to what it might seem like on this blog, you don't actually have to understand all this stuff to tell a good story. Plenty of very successful authors have no idea why they do what they do. It just feels right, just works. And if that's working for you, then by all means, go for it. But if you're like me and you hate driving blind, then digging into these kind of story mechanics is a very good way to make the entire writing process feel less mysterious, frustrating, and generally out of your control. It's also just freaking cool, but that might be my inner story nerd talking :).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the post! If you're not already, please follow me on social media (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) for blog updates, writing links, and general bookish awesome. You can also subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner if that's your jam. Thank you as always for reading/putting up with my story tech geekdom. I'll see you all next week for more!

Until then, happy writing!!

❤ Rachel


Ken Hughes said...

Yay tension!

Someone will probably disagree with any statement that includes the words "more important than characters," but it's true. Or, I like to think of tension as the degree that whatever the story is comes together and synergizes into even more. In a sense, tension is a conflict-oriented way (and is there any other view in writing?) to say "does it work?"

Especially with examples this varied, to show how many forms and paces tension can take. *Crank* is the classic high-speed idea of it, but our first chapters with Harry are using tension to get us into the character, and *Mahoromatic* backs it out into a slow, quiet theme that we still recognize.

Character, action, world, theme-- it's *all* tension. If it works.

Hannah said...

This is really fantastic! I have been following your blog since NaNoWriMo last November, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it, from the writing side to the business side.

Tension is by far the most important, I certainly agree. I have a particular book that is one of my favorites, but has one major glaring flaw. The first half of the book and especially the last half are gripping, tension-filled, emotional journeys, but there are about four chapters right in the middle where the tension fell so flat I stopped reading it for a year. When I decided I wanted my bookmark back, I forced myself to finish it and I discovered gold in the second half. So yes, tension is vital. It can take a story from a million miles and hour to zero in a scene or two.

Nick Green said...

In summary:

* create characters your reader cares about
* then make bad things happen to them AND
* make the reader think more bad things will happen to them soon

Thus we see that character and tension are actually inseparable. Two sides of the same coin.

Mallix said...

Tension can also be torqued too high as well.

I remember reading a tension setup that goes like this:
Father has superpowers from the first book (this is the second book)
Daughter is getting bullied at school awakens super powers and accidentally kills one of her bullies. Daughter is taken to hospital isolation
Father is told that his daughter has an infectious disease and in order so see her he needs to sign this document/disclaimer, he signs without reading because he is desperate to see her.
The Document is a trick that allows an evil government agency to take her from the hospital to a secret facility.

While reading the scene where the father signs the document I remember screaming Noooooooooo IRL at the top of my lungs, until the neighbour started knocking on the walls.

Unfortunately the tension was so high for me that it broke my reading discipline, I ended up skimming/skipping the middle 60% of the book so that I could read the tension resolution immediately.

I never ended up finishing the series either partly was I was afraid to.

The book was the Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon