tensionTension in Intimacy and External High Stakes

by Jason Sitzes


What keeps you turning the page? One simple word: tension.  

Tension is defined by Oxford as being: stretched tight, mental or emotional strain, a relationship between ideas with conflicting demands or implications. Yes, that's what you want your characters to feel and to have, and your reader will follow feeling the same strain.

I'd like to discuss this word in regard to the concept of tension on the page, and help you overcome the challenge of finding tension in your work.  Many writers don't understand the concept of tension: they think it's only important in thrillers, suspense, and mystery novels. That isn't the case. Tension lives on the page of every literary and nonfiction work as well.

I don't use a nonfiction example below, but on my desk is a terrific nonfiction NYT bestselling book titled A Walk In the Woods by Bill Bryson, a book that begins with him stepping into his new backyard in New England (in the States), and finding a sign that reads Appalachian Trail. He discovers the AT is a 2100 mile or 3397 kilometer walk through the woods, and the first page ends with the goal (and page after page of conflict) with him trying to make this hike. It is one of my life goals, by the way, to walk this trail. Step after step there is potential danger and enormous beauty: the stuff of good stories.

Get the idea of gunfights and car chases out of your mind. Fact is, unless those scenes are well done, they might not contain tension.

We're going to look at three works and examine what creates tension. It's the number one issue I find in most manuscripts I read (maybe equal to creating a protagonist I can latch onto), and the number one reason I struggle to get through many published novels. Without tension, you're unlikely to break out or even get your first publication. I have friends who have won writing awards with over a dozen published novels, but their publisher drops them when sales drop. Sales drop because the tension flows out of their books and they rely on surface and unoriginal ideas without digging in.

Final reminder: We aren't talking about fights and explosions, we're talking about the beauty of sexual tension (in an erotic moment or a simple coffee shop meeting), relationship tension, tension of the unknown, tension sitting alone on a park bench; tension in every situation created, in every scene, on every page. You can do it. And you must.

|image2|I'm reading right now the fabulous new release Bloodborn by Aussie writer Kathryn Fox. By definition, a suspense thriller like this should be packed with tension. Watch how this book takes off within a few pages.  No set-up, no introductions, no telling us backstory of what happened in the last book. 

First line: "Doctor Anya Chrichton prepared to face the violent offenders." She isn't there yet, she is in preparation mode. Tension in the waiting. Tension can be subtle, in every line, as on the next page, "Anya slipped her stockinged feet into the black court shoes she kept by the door [can tell by this line that she is always prepared to run out] and grabbed her briefcase as the doorbell rang." We have a sense of urgency, of fast-paced movement.  It keeps us reading and keeps the story flowing.

On the next page we find out a personal, internal conflict, "...the fact that she'd had little sleep for forty-eight hours meant nothing to a judge or jury. This was not about her....The painkillers had eased the headache but her arms began to shiver."

In the next few pages, as they travel to pick up the woman who was raped and who must face the jury, we find she's been killed in her home. All this happens in the first seven pages. The book soars from there. From tension in the autopsy room (Anya's personal tension and external tension in addition to the overall story conflict) to tension in the office of a lawyer who tells Anya she might have screwed up the crime scene so badly the charges against the men who raped the victim could be dropped.  Conflict on an internal level, and an external level, even in short moments of backstory is what keeps readers of this novel turning the pages.

|image3|Let's look at a literary novel. Pat Conroy just released a gorgeous new novel titled South of Broad. Critics love it, and yet some say it's a bit wordy. Wordy often equals not enough tension. But I will not criticize this book for low tension because Conroy has that natural gift of making even the wordy moments grip us with his use of language.

For a page and a half we get a stunning literary description of Charleston, S.C., a coastal city that like Savannah and New Orleans has mystery, history, and seduction dripping from its name. For almost 250 words, story is developed through description, beautifully, and then these lines:

Everything I reveal to you now will be Charleston-shaped and Charleston-governed, and sometimes even Charleston-ruined. But it is my fault and not the city's that it came close to destroying me. Not everyone responds to beauty in the same way.

We learn that the past 250 words of beautiful description shape our protagonist in a most awkward way, an almost tragic way. This is tension literary-style, where the clock isn't ticking on the present, but the past and beauty creates an antagonist for our hero.

|image4|In a previous column I wrote about characters we sympathize with even when the circumstances are what, in our lives, we'd judge as 'immoral.' In Anita Shreve's beautiful novel Fortune's Rocks, she writes of a love affair between a sixteen-year old young woman and a thirty-five year old married man. We are convinced early in the novel that this affair is primal, rare, and desired by both. It isn't until the affair is discovered that both are banished from their town and forbidden to see one another again, and the second half of the novel is Olympia, our protagonist, searching for their child she was forced to give away.

This novel is thick with the tension of knowing they will be found out, but the tension and apprehension of their meeting is brilliant. I won't show you the first time they are together. It's filled with tension as you'd expect. It's their second meeting that to me is the most primal and one of the most gorgeous. I skip around to show you a long scene in its most tension-filled moments. This scene begins outside at night with two characters lying on the grass, Olympia sitting in Haskell's lap, and ends in an unfinished house Haskell is building.

She wants Haskell to be inside of her, as he was in his room. She cannot think of how to tell him this except to raise her skirts. How astonishingly bold she is becoming, she thinks. 'Is this how it is?' she asks him. 'Is this the secret all men and women share?' 'Some have this,' he says. 'Not all. Most men do. There are women who do not ever have this....' And Catherine [his wife] Olympia wonders. How is it with Catherine? [See the tension internally as well as external? She has inner conflict of seduction, wondering about his wife, and the threat of getting caught. Layered tension in a brief moment. Then, the sexual tension between them in the moment. They stop here to get off the grass and enter the unfurnished, unfinished house. The tension of her wanting this second time is rich and pulls us through the scene as he shows her the unfinished house and describes its many rooms. Finally, they come together.] This time they are quick, as though at any minute her father might come looking for them.... They are forced to stand, to lean against a wall. She did not think the body could so quickly want again.... Mingled with the guilt is a strange and quiet rapture, a resting in the moment, not thinking of the next thing or the next. And with this as well a distinct sense of possession.

In our three examples above, there is no car chase. There are no guns. No cops and robbers, and no threat to global security. These examples of tension are externally huge to the protagonist, and internally quiet yet profound. Did Anya mess up the crime scene so badly that the victim will not see justice? Will our Charleston protagonist find the true beauty in a city he loves that almost ruined him? Will Olympia ever escape this possession of a man she can't fully have (and be welcomed back into her family)? Even if you are writing a novel with enormous global implications, the small intimate moments of tension for the character should be there, should be what drives the story, and may even have an impact on the global outcome.

Every scene in your novel should start with a POV character goal whether inherent or stated on the page. The goal may change as the scene progresses, and the tension may come from the goal or from elsewhere. Find the tension that you've ignored, that you've glossed over. It's there.

What if the character is simply moving from one side of the room to the other and along the way: there is a call from an ex-lover (whom she thinks of daily but hasn't heard from in years); a strange unaddressed package is delivered; a pain shoots through her left arm; a shadow passes across the window; the phone rings and stops before she gets there (no message left); the cheese tray for the party starting in five minutes was just devoured by the dog; the ice cream she needed to calm herself is melted or empty; the radio announces a hurricane warning; her heel breaks and it's the last pair of shoes she has and she can't afford another and her anticipated date knocks (so does she decide to make the date at-home instead of out?).  I could go on with subtle moments of tension that can grow huge.  So can you. 

Find a scene in your book, fiction or nonfiction. Do you see a goal? Is there some sort of tension in the first paragraph? In the first line? If not, think about why you need that section or how you can add a subtle tension to the paragraph. Do it in every scene.  Raise the tension level and story will develop, and readers like me will thank you for keeping us up all night.

© Jason Sitzes 2009


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