Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Ok, so I was going to post this at Orbit, but after much hemming and hawing, I decided it was too nuts and bolts of writing oriented. I'm going to write something a little more reader oriented for Orbit later, but for now, have a post about developing tension. I hope someone finds it helpful, or at least entertaining! - R

Have you ever read a book so quickly you had trouble remembering everything that happened? I'm not talking about rushing through books for school (though we've all been there), I'm talking about turning pages like a desperate animal because you simply CAN NOT WAIT to get to the end and see how it all turns out. (I read the Harry Potter this way, attacking anyone who came near me. Limbs might have been lost, I couldn't tell you. I was reading.) Now, have you ever wondered what the author did to make you so desperate to get to the end?

Well, probably not. You were reading, after all. But let me ask you a second question: have you ever been reading a book and liking it ok, and then suddenly you finish a chapter, put the book down, and feel absolutely no urge to pick it up again? Like, it wasn't a bad book, you were just... done, even though the book wasn't.

At their simplest level, these phenomena are two manifestations of the same book construction principle: Tension, one done right, one done not-so-right. I'll let you guess which is which.

Tension is one of those things critics and agents and editors and book reviewers and pretty much anyone who reads critically is always commenting on.  It's the tug of the novel, the gravity that pulls the reader toward the end. It's the force that makes you turn a page, and it's every bit as important to good fiction as plot and character. (Don't believe me? Try reading a novel that has no tension and see how far you get.) But while it's easy to talk about tension like it's some mystical force, it's not very helpful to someone looking to actually put tension into their work. As someone who struggled a lot with tension as I learned how to write a novel, I offer you the simple writer's definition I finally came up with for myself.

Tension is making the reader ask a question, and then not answering it.

At least, not immediately. To give an example, let me turn back to that old stand by, Harry Potter. Why HP? Well, not only is it one of those few things I can expect everyone to have read, but also because Rowling is the freaking ninja master of tension. In the very first paragraph of Sorcerer's Stone , JKR spends her first sentence talking about how the Dursley's are perfectly normal. The second sentence reiterates this, adding that, of course, these are the very last people you'd ever expect to be involved in something magical.

And right there, the tension's locked in. Already you're asking the question: what magical doom is going to befall these stringently normal people? JKR spins this answer out over the course of a chapter, by which point more questions have been posed and you can't help it, you have to keep reading to learn those answers. Some hooks are big, some are small, some are long term, some are short, but they all add their pull. Before you know it midnight has come and passed you're still up, snarling at anyone who dares try to pry that book from your clenched fingers. You, dear reader, are hooked.

Speaking of hooked, the above example could also be called a hook, which is another thing critical readers, especially agents, are always going on about. But all of that violent language - hooking a reader, grabbing a reader, pulling a reader in, has to do with tension. They all force questions: Will she get out alive? Where is her husband? How did that wizard end up in evaporating most of central park? Can a zombie find love?

Of course, part of a satisfying read is having all your questions answered eventually. Dangling threads make for pissed off readers. But, and here's the most important thing I've learned about tension, you have to be very, very careful doling out your answers. If questions are the engines that drive a reader forward, answers are the destination. Once all pertinent questions are answered in a book, the tension is gone.

Let's jump back to paragraph 2 and the book you put down. For sake of argument we'll assume you didn't put it down for obvious reasons (characters were too stupid to live, something horrible happens that makes you throw the book across the room, the story completely jumped the shark, etc). So we have a decent book, maybe even a book you were enjoying, which you just stopped reading and have no real urge to start again. Why? What made you stop? All other things in the book being decent, I will bet you money that it was because the tension fizzled.

Several years ago this happened to me with a romance novel. Things were rolling along initially - broody hero, snappy heroine, money problems in high society, all good and going along fine. And then, a little over half way through, the couple confessed their love for each other and got married.

I put the book down shortly after. Now, I had another five chapters at least of the couple solving the mystery of whatever, but as you see, I didn't care. At least not enough to keep going.

In Romance, the tension question is always "will they get together?" Once this question and all its requisite "How? Where? Why? Is there sex?" facets are answered, that's it. Unless the framing plot is AMAZINGLY compelling and has plenty of tension of its own, once the couple is happily together, the question is answered and the tension is over. Most of the time, that also means the story is over, even if the writer's not done writing.

All that said, though, the final point I'd like to make is that there's no greater tension builder than reader investment. You can hook people with questions all day long, but unless you give the reader a reason to care about the characters and world you're trying to hook them into, they're not going to stay. Initial curiosity will get someone to turn the first page, but not the second. However, if you can create a character the reader cares deeply about, if you can force them to worry for that character, to make them ask "what's going to happen?" and really mean it on a deep, emotional level, you've achieved the highest pinnacle of fiction. But the only way to get to this lofty peak is good tension right from the beginning.

And that's what I've learned about tension so far. Any advice you see here is purely my own and should, as with any single opinion, be taken with a grain of salt. I hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting. I'm always interested in how other people approach tension, or any part of story telling, so if you have a comment, please chime in. I'm all ears (well, all eyeballs, since this is the internet).


Unknown said...

I would also add that, in the case of romantic tension at least, it shouldn't all be external circumstances. Sometimes the hero and heroine express their love for each other halfway through the story, and then the plot has to keep contriving reasons why they can't actually do anything about it because otherwise the story would just be over.

One of the worst offenders I can think of for this is Fushigi Yuugi. The heroine expresses her love for the hero in the first couple of episodes, and then the entire rest of the series they keep having to come up with reasons why nothing can happen. They're all "Oh, I got kidnapped!" "Oh, I need to be a virgin!" "Oh I'm a character in a book!" "Oops, I got kidnapped again!" Eventually you just get fed up and stop caring what they do. If you're going to build romantic tension, the things separating them almost always need to be internal.

Darkie said...

If you want to dish out the manga refrences, Inu Yasha's a good example too. Same case of repeated tension and too long of a story.If Kagome's not being kidnapped, someone took the jewel shard and the characters are back at step one. I don't know anyone who still reads it now. When you have 50+ volumes in a series, the story has got to be really good, otherwise people just stop caring.

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