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Let's talk about tension.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Jan 16, 2018.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ok, I had to sleep on this one because I've tried to have this discussion on three separate occasions over the past few years and every single time got shot down in a blaze of glory.

    But I'm a glutton for punishment.

    Tension is a tricky one to master because it is terribly nuanced. There are so many facets to creating tension, and it changes depending on the type of story you are writing and the writing style.

    But I will say this. Tension is NOT action. Stop for a moment and read that again. Tension is NOT action.

    A few years back there was a certain philosophy on this site that tension = car chases and fight scenes. The more of these. you had, the more the reader would be turning pages. This is absolutely not true. That is not what tension is. I have no clue where that idea came from... probably film, but in fiction it is not what tension means.

    In fiction tension refers to that feeling you get as a reader when questions are raised in your mind.

    What will happen next?
    How will she get out of this one?
    When she find out the truth?
    Will she ever get her boyfriend back?

    Those questions are what makes reader's keep turning pages. If they are connected enough (care enough) about the character and the plight of the character, you can have basically NOTHING HAPPENING and they will still be riveted. That is because tension runs under the surface. Tension is that bubbling pot of questions in the reader's mind.

    You can create this in romance, historical drama, fast paced action thrillers, children books.... everything. On its most basic level the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carl is packed full of tension for kids. Why? The very first line is:

    Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?

    It is an explicitly stated question. What does he see? Let's turn the page to find out. We are presented with another question. We keep turning pages to find the answers.

    In your work you don't need to write explicitly stated questions... but if you are finding that reader's are just not connecting to your work, or having trouble turning pages, there are definite tried and true ways of increasing tension. Methods that have been around for thousands of years. And these methods DO NOT include adding more action.

    1) Simply making sure the character's goal is clearly shown is a valuable tool for heightening tension. Having a direct through line of "This is what the character wants"... and "these are the obstacles he will have to face" gives the reader an idea of what might happen, and raises questions of "How are they going to achieve that?"

    2) Creating a character that readers really care about is a great way of creating tension. When reader's care about the character... when they really love the character, then they will care what happens to them.

    But at the end of the day, simply remembering that tension = questions raised in reader's minds is a good place to start.

    What do you think, Scribes?

    What are your tried and true ways of creating tension for your readers? What are some methods have you learned that work for you? What is some of the worst advice you have heard in regards to tension?
     
  2. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Not sure I totally agree that tension is raised questions in the reader’s mind. That’s part of it for sure. Tension piques interest.

    I think tension is, simply put, the result of well-rendered conflict.

    That conflict can span from a small disagreement to an epic standoff, and everything in between.
     
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  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmm, interesting. I'm wondering how piques interest is different than raising questions?

    If I see an interesting scene that piques my interest, I feel like my head is swimming with questions. Who is that guy? What is happening? How will this play out?
     
  4. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I’m saying that’s the part of your presentation that I agree with.

    I’m not totally in agreement though. In my opinion, tension is the result of conflict. That’s the simplest way I can define it.

    Conflict may not necessarily raise questions, however. For example, tension might still be present when the reader knows precisely what is happening.
     
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  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Example? I’m still thinking, even if I knew exactly what was happening, I don’t know how it will play out.... so there is still the mystery there...
     
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Consider an omniscient POV as one example. Since this is a fantasy site, there are pieces of The Hobbit/LoTR, written in omniscient, where the reader knows precisely what each character thinks. Because of this knowledge, tension is raised. Without it, it wouldn’t be so engaging because the POV would be in the dark regarding other character motivations.

    Some of the LoTR-ophiles here will have to point to exact excerpts, but they do exist.

    Dune might be another example. The reader knows what each character thinks and their motivations.

    Yes, at some basic level the question, “what happens next?” is still present, but that's inherent in any story.
     
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  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, so like dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters?
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Yes. That’d be one possibility.

    FYI: I edited the above to include the example, “Dune”.
     
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, so I would still argue that even with dramatic irony, where there is literally ZERO mystery... all the thoughts and motives are on the table... there is still the questions as to the outcome.

    Will Paul make it out of this okay? Will he find out about the plan? Will he be able to stop them?
    Will Frodo be able to complete this task? Will they figure out the way into the dwarves caves? What will they find in there?

    Even if the question get's answered in the same page (they do get into the cave, Gandolf does come back, etc, etc) then there are new questions being raised, which leads you to keep turning more pages.

    Etc, etc, etc.
     
  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I don’t disagree. I simply believe that any tension, and it’s succeeding questions, are simply the result of conflict.
     
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  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ahhhhhhhhhh, yes. Truth. And as you said, conflict does not necessarily have to be action. It can be as simple as a road block in the way of a quest... a wall. Or a locked door. At any rate, the conflict raises the questions.
     
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  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    This is the way I think of things. It's doesn't matter if you know the ending, because in a lot of stories the ending is known at least in broad strokes. But the question remains how they got there, which I find to be the most important thing. To me, there's the overarching questions, that get answered only when the tale is finished, and the small scale questions that come and go as things unfold.

    One of the things I try to remember is to pay the reader off from time to time with definite answers. If all I ever do is bring up questions without answering anything, I think chances are the reader will get tired of it and think I'm just toying with them and stop reading.

    I don't have any worst advice, but I have some worst mistakes. In some of my earlier stories, I tried to avoid answering a question because I though it would be a great reveal. But no, the answer to the question made for better tension, because it brought up an even better question of how will they get out of and avoid the mess created by that answer.
     
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  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I think tension is probably the one aspect of storytelling that it's taken me the longest to figure out - and that still doesn't mean I actually get it.

    At first I just didn't want to see the need for it. I figured my characters were interesting enough without it and that the unmade promises of things unhinted at would be enough to keep readers interested (if it wasn't going to be interesting, I wouldn't write a book about it, right?).

    I think I may have been a victim of the implication that tension means action, and I wasn't interested in writing action. I wanted to try and keep the readers interested in other ways, and that's probably why I latched on to kishotenketsu as soon as I heard about it (see thread about plot structure).

    I've since learned that tension isn't action, and I think I've got a better grasp on it.

    Helio and TAS talk about tension as the result of questions or conflict. I think both are right. A conflict is a type of question, and a question is a type of conflict. You may have to stretch your regular definitions of conflict and question to agree fully, but it works for me.

    I think part of what made tension difficult for me to grasp was that I also didn't have much of an idea of the importance of reader expectations. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how readers read and how to best to immerse them in the world of my stories. What I didn't think about was why readers read.
     
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Totally makes sense to me.

    Love this so much.
     
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  15. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Mmm. I love tension. My favorite is between characters at seriously ridiculous moments. People are so complicated. I once read somewhere that fiction characters need to have their shit together as people more than real humans because of reader expectations. I agree to an extent. People are complex, crazy, loving, interesting, all kinds of things. Bringing out human nature in story is the very essence of what makes it exciting.

    So for me, tension depends on many factors. There's emotional tension, physical tension, sexual tension, awkward silences and conversations, etc. What helps me in any given scene is to focus on the viewpoint character and their relationship with whatever or whoever is their opponent in that scene: could be her/him, another character or the story world.

    For example, in one of my stories the lead male has a tremendous amount of anxiety over where he lives. He hates the town he lives in. There are various reasons for that but it's something that slowly boils underneath the surface in some scenes vs others. Particularly when he's having conversations with another character about having moved back home. It's a source of annoyance for him and it makes him respond in asshole ways sometimes. It added to the tension in various scenes with the heroine because it fueled his emotional distance. In another one of my stories, the heroine had an ongoing feud with one of the other characters and it caused a lot of problems between her, the hero, and her work environment. Anything can be tension.
     
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  16. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Out of all the hot-button issues we're reviewing, this is the only one that's really gotten my goat... I don't like thriller pacing and I don't like endless anguish. Whenever I read books that ramp up constant tension, it genuinely gives me anxiety--if it gets to a certain fever-pitch I will skim to get to the damn ending just to see how it resolves, which is all too often with not-quite-cliffhangers and further character torture. I don't re-read those books and I don't pick up anything else by those authors. I want to be able to breathe sometimes when I'm reading, I want to trust that there will be a satisfying ending that resolves all that tension, that will make me grin with delight. I understand that there are people who read to make their heart race, but I'm just not one of them.

    Having said that, I understand what you guys are going to say--tension doesn't necessarily mean the thriller approach, it can be more subtle than that. The problem is, I do believe that my stories lack scene-to-scene tension. I keep catching myself trying to resolve tension early, having characters reassure each other, all of that. But when I go looking for advice about building tension, it seems so extreme--what's the worst thing that could happen to your character right now, throw in some random awfulness, never let them accomplish anything without throwing a wrench in their face first. I've tried to read Maass and just could not get through it. I go looking for tips on how to structure scenes and pitfalls to avoid and it feels like I'm being told to bend my story into a wildly different shape. Maybe I need to find a Regency Romance guide to tension, I don't know.

    Optimistically, I'd like to think that part of that reaction is because there is inherent tension in the stories already--what's the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? Oh, I don't know, her situation staying the same for the rest of her life would be pretty damn awful, things suck for her right now. I've never been shy about having my characters suffer, but I'm just not sure it feels compelling.

    I just...don't want to hear "make it worse". I want to hear how I can convey to the reader that things are already bad. How I can keep that at the forefront of their mind without throwing "more" into my plot.

    I think this is where writing advice rankles...when you know something's wrong, but the advice feels like it's trying to shove you too far...and you don't, or at least I don't, have the confidence to say for certain that it doesn't apply. I just want to read moderate, nuanced advice about this...maybe I just want someone to coax me into seeing the point instead of being slapped in the face with it.
     
  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmm, I think the only way I could coax would be to use gentle examples?

    It really bugs me that tension has become synonymous with "ramp up everything bad you can possibly think of until your head explodes" and Make It Worse has become synonymous with Make it Grimdark.

    I'm not sure how that happened, but I think the way it is presented has a lot to do with that.

    Tension is any underlying, bubbling under the surface question. There is tension in Curious George cartoons. I will use that as an example because it is hardy grim dark, and nothing really bad ever happens to Curious George. Remember, the way I'm explaining tension is tension for the reader, not for the character. So at the beginning of a Curious George story George always wants something. Maybe to make a birthday gift for the man in the yellow hat. George maybe wants to paint him a picture. But... (and here is where they ramp it up... lol), George has no crayons! He lent them to Bill for a project! Oh No! This is, literally, the worst thing that can happen to George in that minute. So he goes to Sally to get some crayons. On his way it rains... and his paper gets wet. Oh dear! Things are really getting bad for George. Will he be able to finish his picture before the man's birthday? Let's keep reading to find out!

    That is all tension is. Tension is just the conflict and the questions. It does not have to be Game of Thrones intense. It can be very tame. Very simple stuff.

    As far as Make it Worse. That does NOT mean make it Grim Dark. Make it worse just means "make it more complicated".

    So maybe a girl goes to break up with her boyfriend. It is already pretty bad. Tears. Angry words.

    Could you make it worse? If you are thinking only in terms of yelling and screaming... no. It would be overly dramatic and dumb. But what if the girl showed up to break up with him and he thought she was coming to make up from a fight and he had bough an engagement ring? Maybe he had been saving for a car, but thought she was more important and spent the money on a ring. Maybe he even had made a romantic dinner, and bought her favourite dessert. Here she shows up to dump the guy and crap... This is terrible. That would be pretty bad. Going to break up with a guy you fought with is one thing. Going to break up with a guy who thinks you are the one and just spent his car money on your engagement ring is a whole new ball game.

    I hope those examples make sense?
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I just did the above in my own WIP. For the longest time in my draft I had Andy come home from school after missing the auditions for a major speech competition (because of her dad). She comes home and sees him giving the landlady one of her mother's treasures because he has been having trouble paying rent. Andy is pissed. She is ready to slaughter the guy. Originally she just stomped into the house and gave him what for.

    The other night I thought, what if she stomped into the house and he had tried to throw her a "congratulations party"? What if he assumed she would win the contest, had no clue that he delayed her so much that morning that she missed it, and went to all the trouble to make a banner and a cake and get her a gift that he couldn't afford? That would suck. She rushes into the house to fight with him and is faced with all this love. His pride for her is literally hanging from the ceiling. It created some amazing inner conflict.

    That was how I made the scene worse.
     
  19. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    I get it, I do, but when you say make it more complicated...is that necessary? To be honest, a lot of examples to require characters going to extreme lengths (i.e. engagement ring guy) or horrible, unlikely acts of god author. I like conflict that arises despite characters being sensible, communicative, thoughtful fucking adult people. Saying that oh, now a character should twist herself into a pretzel in order to put herself in the position that's exactly contrary to what she wants, even if she'd never go there if the author gave her reasonable choices... I just don't know.

    When do you know that you need to make things worse? When do you stop making things worse, instead of turning the plot into a Gordian knot of complexity and worms? How can you identify a lack of tension on a scene level?

    Talking in generalities again. I can bring the story I'm actually thinking of into it. I feel like there is a lot of "yes-but" and "no, and" built into the plot, that happened without me sitting down and wondering if I could make it worse. At the beginning of the story the witch heroine is freed from her prison, but she returns to find her mother dead and faces the risk of starvation over the winter. An old friend from the village finds out she's there and brings her food, but as she's beginning to find her feet again, the thane's son arrives at her doorstep, having hunted her down. He doesn't want to burn her at the stake, but he asks her to return to her prison to lift a curse... when she lifts that spell it turns out to only be a symptom of the real curse, etc, etc.

    The thing is, maybe that's not enough, maybe it's shit tension, I don't know. Should I not have her friend show up, should I make her crawl into the village? What if she would rather die alone in her cottage than strike out for help? And if I load that moment up with tension and awfulness, doesn't that just keep me from getting to the more important plot point of the thane's son showing up? I don't want to emphasize something for the reader that isn't important--I don't want to contradict the characters and the world. I mean, I could have the thane's son drag her out of there in irons and force her to come with him--that's what he intended to do, it wouldn't be crazy. But that'd put a hell of a damper on the trust between them, which is absolutely essential later. I can think of a million ways for things to go worse, but I remain unconvinced that it would help the story...
     
  20. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    All amazing questions.

    I think, to answer them, one must consider the point of the story. The themes. What is the story about. In my case, the story is about the girl and her dad. The relationship. The scene did a ton of extras besides just "making it worse". It showed the inner conflict the girl has for her dad. He is not a bad guy. He is actually a really kind, loving, proud father who is struggling to do what he can for her. He messes up sometimes. She wants him to be perfect and he isn't. That is her character arc. She has to accept that he isn't perfect, and she isn't either. So the scene set all that up for me.

    In the past three months I have cut at least five characters from my first draft. Entire story lines, character arcs, relationships, romances. Gone. Delete. Entire "make it worse" scenarios cut. Gone. So that I could simplify and focus on what mattered to the story. The true theme.

    You could go crazy bending characters backwards into pretzels, and you may want to... but only if it serves the story you are writing.

    So it's not that it is necessary, but thinking about it sometimes helps you to stretch a scene further. Give it more impact. Make it do double duty. Use it as a way to really showcase what you are trying to do with the story. Offer an emotional moment of change and transformation where one maybe didn't exist originally.

    The examples are given to show what is possible. Not to say "Do this in your story." You have to know your own story. You have to know where a tool like this could be valuable and where it would be junk. Where it is not necessary.

    Sometimes you don't know. Sometimes a moment of inspiration will hit you where it is like an aha moment. Many thousands of words later you may think Oh! That would really heighten the moment! That would really highlight what I'm trying to show here!

    I'm not sure you can look at plot and make it worse. I think you can look at themes, and find ways to showcase those themes. To really showcase relationships and character change in different ways. To offer opportunities for inner conflict and growth that don't always have to be negative experiences.

    I don't think one can look at plot alone and say where things should be "made worse". I just read a lovely James Herriot story to my son about a stray dog. James Harriot is a small village vet and he sees this dog at the market, begging. He wants to help it, but the little thing is skittish and keeps running away from him. One day the Police officer brings the dog to Mr. Harriet. It has been hit by a car and needs surgery. Now, of course Mr. Harriet is going to do the surgery... but he takes this opportunity to flesh out his wife as a character. Before the police officer comes with the dog he shows that he and his wife were getting ready to go to the horse races. They are getting all dressed up. It is their first afternoon out together in many months. They are usually so busy. Helen has packed a picnic and even bought a new hat... then... oh no! The police officer shows up with this dog. The dog needs surgery. The angelic Helen takes off her hat and gets into her scrubs. She doesn't say a word.

    So in this scenario, Mr. Harriot uses a "make it worse" strategy in order to characterize his wife as this angelic being, who never complains, and always does her work dutifully. The scene does a lot of extra things, but he didn't have to add it in. It would have been a perfectly fine story without it. The officer could have just shown up, Harriet done the surgery. There is already enough tension in "Will the dog be okay?" But with it in, it just gives it that little bit extra to the character, and makes you love them both all the more.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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