Musings by Sharyl Heber
My Critique Group:
“Your story lacks tension.”
“Thanks for that vague and amorphous critique.
How do I fix it?”
Tense about creating tension? Me too. MasterWriter Dictionary defines tension like this: The interplay of conflicting elements in a piece of literature; A device for regulating tautness; Mental, emotional, or nervous strain; Barely controlled hostility or a strained relationship between people or groups.
So many writing problems are misdiagnosed when the true culprit is sagging tension, and so many writing problems cause a lack of tension. I ruminate on this. Just so I don’t suffer alone, I offer these thoughts and strategies on crafting tension:
· Risk: What is at risk? A fair question to ask of every story. If nothing important is at stake, where is the story?
· Conflict: And, how will it be resolved? But, conflict itself does not inherently equal tension. Two guys shooting at each other evokes minor concern until… one of them is protecting the local water supply from terrorists. Now I care, now I feel tense. So, Conflict + Risk = Tension.
· Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Well-matched heroes and villains with opposing goals.
· Need, Desire, Goal: If no one needs or desires anything, where is the story?
· Complications and Obstacles: If there are no impediments to a character achieving his/her goal, where is the story? Craft solid barriers. The more insurmountable the odds, the greater the tension.
· Mystery: Who are they? Who did it? Why did she do it? What’s he going to do next? Unkowns + problem solving with clues. Stories in genres other than mystery need this. Discovering what is unknown but alluded to, keeps us reading.
· Suspense: Anticipation, curiosity aroused, uncertainty, expectation, ambiguity. Stories in genres other than thrillers need this. Something is going to happen. Set it up. Pull us through step by step and give it time on the page. The intruder watches from the street, he hides in the bushes, he opens the window, he creeps down the hall, he turns the bedroom doorknob...
· Surprise: A singular shocker event may not sustain tension but could be the perfect introduction or boosting of tension and the establishing of a story question— An explosion, a Dear-John letter, a positive pregnancy test, a bouquet of flowers, a long lost friend, an ambush.
· A Story Question: Most (all?) stories benefit from a story question up front, and the provision of the answer in the end. Tension sags when we don’t know why we’re reading or have no sense of direction.
· Stick to the Path: String a subject-matter zipline from intro to conclusion, then keep us tethered to it. What is the object of the story? Even when playing with time or multiple POV’s, wandering too far from the central goal or premise can drain tension. Forays and subplots should be carefully crafted with their own tension, and both relate and return to, the main story focus.
· Twists and Reversals: While the overall story direction may be relatively stable, introducing new forces or shifting advantage between rivals can ratchet up tension.
· Sharp Fresh Dialogue: Tension plummets with insipid banter. Clipped dialogue or unfinished sentences can add a mini-punch.
· Subtext: Story buried beneath the surface. Smoldering suppressed emotions emerge in character choice, action and dialogue. Props and location can harbor past trauma. What is not said but intended is powerful.
· Threat of Trouble: Foreshadowing and alluding to upcoming trouble keeps us reading.
· Human Frailties: Striving for and attaining (or failing to attain) forgiveness, courage, self-esteem... Battling fear, pride, illness, addiction or prejudice...
· Cliff Hangers: Paragraph or chapter endings that leave us a tantalizing indication of something to come. We have to know, so we read on.
· Scarcity: Diminishing critical resources: air, water, food, money... The lack of it can cause fear, suspense and conflict.
· Beware of Fate: Simple adversity, fate, or bad luck with no hope of triumph, does not make for much of a story. No conflict, no battle, no victory. If using these, consider crafting so fate can be outwitted and conquered.
· Injustice: Our compelling drive to right wrongs. From small inconsiderate gestures to genocide, we will read for vindication and comeuppance.
· Plagues of Conscience: Opposing internal forces to be resolved. Grappling with guilt, doing the right thing, good vs. evil.
· Good vs. Good: Equally valid, positive forces or options in irreconcilable opposition.
· Remorse / Regret: Especially when alluding to an event to increase the mystery.
· Retribution / Retaliation: Relentless, single-minded revenge or a passive pay-back.
· Battling or Conquering the Elements: Tsunamis, draughts, earthquakes. Climbing Mount Everest, Hiking the Appalachians. From a mud puddle in a picture book to The Perfect Storm, Mother Nature can be the focus of, or add complications and tension to, a story.
· A Crucible: Characters stuck in a closed environment; elevator, walled city, abusive home, religious cult, spaceship. No escape creates tension. Every story world should be it’s own crucible. If there is simple escape from the problems, where then is the story?
· Unstable Character: An unpredictable, off balance character, they’re ill or crazy, pushed to the limit, capable of anything.
· Loss: Of anything important – Love, friendship, memories, skills, possessions, our minds! Loss can = pain or fear or danger, and then, what’s to be done about it?
· Dilemma: Working through excruciating options or seemingly impossible choices.
· Urgency: A deadline, the ticking clock.
· Irony: Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
· Hope: Hope in itself is meek and does not deliver much tension. Perhaps better to craft its fulfillment as if it were suspense (see suspense above.)
· Misunderstandings: Characters misreading a situation then feeling or taking action based on faulty perception.
· Tragic Accidents: A crash, a surgical blunder, a bungled caper. An inevitable chain of events to come based on misjudgment. Accidents are set ups for conflict, internal fortitude, and need for restoration.
· Deep Emotion: Rage, grief, loneliness, devotion, passion... Show-don’t-tell is helpful here.
· Substance: There must be enough substance in a topic to carry a full story. If the subject is average or mundane, it needs a power-injection. The journey of Grandma’s dishes may be lackluster until it is told through WWII memories of loss and trauma.
· I Dare You: A double-dog dare, would add some suspense and tension to a story.
· High Stakes Game: Gambling or a mega game with potential for devastation.
· Blackmail: I know what you did. I can expose you.
· Breach of Ethics: From white lies to criminal activity, patient/therapist or teacher/student boundary violations. $$ for favors, conflicts of interest, accepting a bribe. Any breach can set up tension with fear of discovery and reveal seedy character.
· Cold Threats: I know where you live. I know where your children go to school. Pictures of you... Someone is watching. Someone knows all about you.
· POV: Changing point of view, e.g., from a distant 3rd person retelling of a tale to a more intimate and immediate 1st person POV can add a bit of power to a story (or finding the perfect POV to maximize tension.)
· Temporal Tense: Try shifting from past tense recollections to a present tense inclusion of the reader in the experience as the story unfolds.
· Show-Don’t-Tell: Sick of this phrase? I know, try to get over it. There is much tension to be gained by taking something out of ‘journalistic’ descriptive narrative and ‘showing’ it via fresh example or by placing it into a scene with action and dialogue.
More elusive but critically important:
· A Fresh Perspective: Quirky, offbeat, distinctive… Peculiarity alone can’t carry a story but the lack of it may diminish or sink the piece. Have we heard this narrative, this word configuration, author voice, or point of view a hundred times before?
Writer-Manager-Creative Consultant, Rachel Gordon, describes this pitfall in a brilliant power-phrase, “Typing up common knowledge commonly.” I love this caution. It hangs like a warning skeleton at the drawbridge to my creative process. It challenges me to see and feel and write fresh. Stale sucks tension into a black hole.
Insidious Tension Suckers:
Most any writing problem can slow or stop a reader’s flow, which sucks tension from the reading experience. Some frequent offenders below:
- · Distracting or unprofessional formatting
- · Errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling
- · Repeated words
- · Unidentifiable speakers – This takes careful management. Minimizing dialogue tags, recognizing when they are needed, and maximizing distinctive speech. In any case, we have to know who’s speaking or the moment is lost.
- · Unclear or confusing narrative descriptions
- · Long bulky sentences
- · Excessive or confusing use of pronouns – She, she, she repeated or, which she in the scene - Gladys, Mona or Trudy?
- · Adverbs – ‘ly’ words. “One per chapter allowed,” she said begrudgingly. (One might be too many.)
- · Inactive verbs – Is, was, were, has, had, have been etc. Which is more powerful? Willy was on the corner or, Willy vomited on the corner (or danced, raged, sulked, paced...) Active verbs show-don’t-tell.
- · Overwriting – Excessive or flowery prose
- · Awkward phrasing
- · Mixing past and present tense erroneously.
- · Shifting point of view (POV) erroneously.
- · Tentative, equivocating phrasing – Maybe, almost, kind of, its like, I think, might be, could have, sort of, sometimes, can possibly... These drain power.
- · Dependent clauses – Because her bed lay next to the open window, he was able to climb in and murder her. That formal structure is distancing and better suited to non-fiction.
- · Credibility – Readers must be able to suspend disbelief. If the story world is not adequately established, credibly set up, then we won’t believe it and tension plummets.
- · Wimpy, cardboard characters.
Does my memoir need tension? I say, YES! I would make a distinction between journal and memoir. In my journal, I recount events, feelings, conversations etc. for my eyes and my heart only. I have lived the material so there is no mandate to flesh it out in any particular way. I keep it under my bed. When I call it memoir and pull it out for others to see, I’m now compelled to draw the reader in and keep them reading. I’m now telling a story. Story is drama, which requires crafting tension. Considering the bullet points above may help.
Grammatically Correct ~ Dramatically Inept. I made this ditty up and staple-gunned it to my forehead when I discovered my pages riddled with the inactive verb, ‘was.’ It’s a concept that applies to other tension-sucking pitfalls too. Is the story grammatically correct? Sure, but where’s the drama?
Drama and tension are soul mates. MasterWriter Thesaurus offers these alternatives to the word dramatic: Vivid, potent, meaningful, moving, forceful, effective, startling, thrilling, expressive...Picture books are not exempt. Each of the musings above can be adjusted for genre.
When the piece is bland or flat, we can rework it.
We’re writers. We rewrite. We craft oomph!