Monday, June 18, 2018
And the Next Important Element Is...
…tension. It’s tension. The anticipation of what might happen next. And yes, I concluded the last blog post with a “to be continued” as the simplest example of the purpose tension serves in our writing.
There is often confusion between conflict and tension – the two are not synonyms. Where conflict is the basic opposition in the story that gets us to read it, tension is what gets us to turn each page, to read a book until 2 a.m., to think, “Well, just one more chapter.” Conflict gets a person to check out a book, tension gets them to read it cover-to-cover.
The classic formula for tension is built around one factor: risk. What is at stake? Does our main character have any skin in the game? What is the cost of action or inaction? If there are no consequences for the actions of our main character, do we really care about what they do? Do we care about who they are? Personally, when I meet people who are not held accountable for their actions, they annoy me and I move on. So why would I want to read about one?
The level of risk can range from simply choosing the wrong sandwich at the deli all the way to life or death. In the thriller genre, tension enters as quickly as possible – the first chapter, or even the first page. A thriller is all about high-stakes decisions, lives on the line and actions with immediate consequences. The prisoner-on-the-run style is a good archetype to follow: The escaped prisoner’s every move is a risk as the authorities pursue him, trying to take him in dead or alive. Therefore, every choice has high stakes – stop for a rest and he might get caught, but keep running and he might be too tired when the bloodhounds are set loose. Constant, page-turning tension.
But not every story is a thriller, and not every book should get a boost of energy by bloodhounds or an unexpected car chase. Tension can be as simple as a character preparing to tell his daughter that the dog died, or a boss who has to fire her best friend. Readers can relate to these easier, so the situations draw in interest. And as these moments are extended, the tension builds. If the parent has to wait until his daughter gets back from school, it gives him time to fear how horrible this will be for her, and the reader fears it too. The boss who has to fire her best friend might have to wait until her friend returns from vacation, leaving her to reminisce about all the years they worked together. She dreads that moment, and the reader dreads what she has to do as that moment approaches ever-so-slowly.
Now we have developed suspense.
Any time tension is prolonged without conclusion, the result is suspense. This can be done over the breadth of a novel or limited to just one sentence, but however it is done, it affects the reader.
Consider this paragraph:
“I stood before the door to the old house. I didn’t want to enter. I wouldn’t. My hands shook. I couldn’t move. My brow dripped with sweat. All the bad memories came back. I forced myself to turn and leave.”
It’s an okay paragraph. There’s tension because it’s a decision. We understand very quickly that the character doesn’t want to go in, and in the end, the character doesn’t. Surprising? Suspenseful? Meh. It would’ve been a surprise if the character entered anyway. Otherwise, it’s just so-so. But if we remove intentions and leave our audience guessing until the end, we have turned tension into suspense. Here’s a new version:
“I stood before the door to the old house. My hands shook, I couldn’t move, and my brow dripped with sweat as all the bad memories came back, and I forced myself to ….”
To what? The first example leads to an obvious conclusion, but the second one carries a nervous tension throughout the paragraph and perhaps several more. We can guess at the action coming next, but we do not know what that decision will be until those final words, and we need to have that answer! That’s suspense.
Grammar/style note: one other thing that helps build suspense is sentence structure. In the last example, the first paragraph is eight little sentences, each a simple description, but on their own they do not make much of anything. The second paragraph, however, is just two sentences. More importantly, the sentence describing the character’s decision-making process is a long, continual build of descriptors leading to the final conclusive act. As one long sentence, it does not offer the reader a chance to breathe or rest. They read through without a break, all the descriptions building up, compounding on each other in an escalation to one final conclusion. This is called a suspended sentence, a style trick used exclusively for building suspense from a character’s important decisions.
And if it helps, the character still turned away from the door.