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Managing Tension: Pulling the Reader Through the Story
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Monday, October 22, 2012 11:26 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Tension, in story terms, is what keeps a reader glued to the story...what makes the reader want to know what happened next.   Managing tension to keep the reader firmly attached requires some thought, because it's not as simple as turning the "suspense" meter to 100 and keeping it there.  Anything that stays the same can become boring--predictable--and thus cause catastrophic loss of tension for some readers. 

Tension needs to take hold on the first page, and then be modulated through the book--allowing the reader to take a breath (but not a day's worth of breaths) here but cranking the tension tighter there.   The trick to managing tension is knowing where here and there are, and how to release a little tension without letting go the story-rope.

Exactly how this is done varies among genres, because the sources of tension are different in different genres.   In a mystery or thriller, you have the constant menace of the undiscovered or uncaught criminal (murderer, terrorist, etc.)  These may or may not exist in other genres (you can add a serial killer to a romance if you want to, but serial killers aren't a standard feature, as they are in some types of mysteries.)

But in all genres, you have more than one "rope" to pull to create tension--something external to your characters (alien invasion, war, politics, business, family) and something internal (growing out of their own personality and history.) 

In fact, you can and should make use of as many sources of tension as possible, because this allows you to vary the source (and the degree) of tension, providing the reader with a more engaging read.   Most of us have more than one source of concern in our lives--it's not just the job (or lack of a job) but the rise in rent, the fact that the bank now closes an hour earlier, the cuts to bus service, the retirement of a doctor or dentist we've used for years, a favorite headache remedy being taken off the market,  a spouse's sudden illness, a change in school policy,  a chronically-difficult-to-start car, rumors of gang activity in the neighborhood, etc, etc.  

So there's the big, story-spanning source of tension, which is somewhat genre-specific (Will Diana and Cal get together?  Will Detective Dobbs catch the serial killer before another person is killed?  Will Arnold negotiate that treaty with the aliens and save humanity?) 

And there are the other tensions, both internal and external, that provide both stumbling blocks and diversions from the main "problem."   Cal's a vegan;  Diana's a werewolf for whom both hunting and eating red meat are necessary for health.   Detective Dobbs' wife or child was just diagnosed with cancer; his medical insurance is trying to claim "prior condition" and not pay for treatment.   Arnold is a hot-headed, short-tempered guy who's in a situation where only a cool head and patience will work and he thinks the aliens smell like rotten meat.

Through the course of the book, shift emphasis from one source of tension to another--interior, exterior--but not in a regular sine-wave pattern.  Mix it up.  Keep it surprising, but never completely lax.   When one source of tension has gone slack another should be ramping up...at a different level. 

Too many trivial tension sources and the story itself will seem weak; readers aren't usually glued to the page by ailing hot water heaters, dripping faucets, etc.  But these can be minor impediments, revealing how competent (or not) your characters are with such things, and used sparingly add a touch of reality.  Who hasn't had a dripping faucet, a running toilet? 

The book's own main problem should never be far away from your character's mind, but should not be the only source of tension.  And the other sources of tension should either connect with the main one, or (and preferably both) reveal the character so that his/her handling of the big problem makes more sense.

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 12:19 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Great post; bumping up so others can see it.

Philip Tucker
Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 3:23 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

I'm reading Den goda viljan (The Best Intentions), Ingmar Bergman's novel about his parents (and the basis for the 1992 film of the same name). 

Talk about drawing the reader into the story!   In the first chapter,  Henrik Bergman, the author's father, has a tense encounter with his grandfather, Fredrik Bergman.
The men are estranged because the grandfather and his wife disowned Henrik's father and left his mother and himself to live in poverty.  Now Fredrik's wife, Henrik's grandmother, is dying.  She wants a deathbed reconciliation with her grandson, and she wants his forgiveness.

But Henrik has no forgiveness to offer.  The old man tries everything from bribery to emotional coercion, but Henrik is adamant in his refusal.  The scene ends with Fredrik taking a hard grip on the boy's arm and shaking him slowly in anger and frustration.  Henrik says, Are you going to strike me, grandfather?

As usual, the author is utterly convincing, and deeply sympathetic to both characters.   I was drawn into the story by the tension of this initial conflict, and the family drama remains a source of tension throughout the book.

I wish I could write like that!

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 1:31 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Philip, you can learn to write like that--you've analyzed a compelling scene very well, and for you to be that sensitive to it, you have to have had some experience with real people that makes the scene work for you.

So take your experience of real people interacting, and start working out a scene--just one at first--with the same kind of tension, the same kind of pull-through.  What will give you the skills is actually writing the scene--we writers hone our skills by using them.  So...don't just wish...write!

Philip Tucker
Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 4:07 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77


Thanks for the encouraging words. Unfortunately, I find I agree with Ivy Compton-Burnett, who said, As regards plots I find real life no help at all.  Real life seems to have no plots.

Since your post, I've been trying to come up with an equally dramatic conflict from my own life, but I don't seem to have one.  Maybe my heart is just not one of those that's full of passion, jealousy and hate.  It sure looks like my imagination isn't.

All I can think to do is to steal some.  I rewrote Bergman's scene and transported it four hundred years into the future.  In my version, the young man is a young ape, and the grandparents are his former owners.  I shift the conflict to center about the emotions of a slave owner and his erstwhile property.

Of course it's still an exercise in plagiarism.  I stole the entire emotional progression of the conflict, right down to the old man shaking the young one. But I got to do a little original place description, and at least it was writing of a sort.  That is all too rare for me these days.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012 12:51 AM

I find I agree with Ivy Compton-Burnett, who said, As regards plots I find real life no help at all. 

Okay, this may seem I’m insulting you, but I mean none. I’m just injecting a dose of reality: you’re not in a position to either agree or disagree. You’ve just had a successful author, one who gave you advice based on personal experience and having talked with other writing professionals over a period of years. And she slanted that advice to make it useful to a new writer.

So what she suggests demonstrably works. Yet you reject it, based on a quote you’ve taken out of context, and a claim that your life isn’t interesting enough. But it is. Your life is filled with tension and dramatic situations that could be made into a scene. Everyone’s is. The idea is to learn how to manage tension, not use an argument with the grocery clerk to write a novel.
What she says, in her first post is gospel. There are lots of ways to create conflict, and to manage the rising tension in a scene, but it’s a skill you absolutely must have.

Here’s something else to try. It’s one actors use. You have two characters. One has been sent to collect a debt of $250. That character can have no focus or goal but to collect the money. He cannot discuss any other subject. He cannot modify or agree to wait because his job depends on success, not excuses. And he honestly believes that he’s right and that the debt is legitimate.

The person who answers the door feels that the product for which the debt is owed was defective, or not delivered, or… You can fill in the product and the reason. But that person is not going to pay and isn’t willing to discuss payment, only the problem and why they owe nothing.

Run the scene any way you please. The one who knocks can leave, be tossed out, or murder the one who answers the door. But either way write the scene in third person close, from either person’s POV (and maybe a second version from the other person’s viewpoint, too) showing their thinking processes and reactions. And use at least 1000 words to do it.

There’s a lot more to telling a story on the page than simply presenting the events of the plot, because that’s a report, and boring. You cannot visualize a scene and then describe what you see happening because that’s a graphic novel without the pictures. And you cannot tell the story aloud and record the words you would use, because the reader can’t see your expression and gestures or hear the emotion in your golden voice. All they get are dispassionate words in a row. The emotion is added to them by the reader, but only if your word choice and arrangement makes your reader feel that emotion.

My point, as it so often is, is that you need to learn the techniques of telling a story on the page, which aren’t the same writing skills we learn in school, because they’re designed for nonfiction application.

Intuition won’t work. Reading fiction teaches to appreciate. But it no more gives us the techniques and tricks of the writers trade than eating a birthday cake teaches us to bake.

So listen to what she has to say. And dig into a few books that will give you the tricks, and of more importance, the pitfalls. Treat writing just like any other profession. It takes study, practice, and mentoring by someone knowledgeable.

Philip Tucker
Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012 5:46 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

You're correct, Jay, what you say does seem insulting.  It seems condescending, presumptuous, and hostile.  Thank you for clarifying that you are doing all that inadvertently, just in the course of describing reality.

But Jay, if you're being so insulting just by accident, without even wanting to, or even knowing it, really, doesn't that reflect on your own abilities both as a good writer and as an empathic human being?  I take it as evidence that you are neither very competent nor very friendly.

BTW, I've been a reader and a fan of Elizabeth Moon since her early work.  I hold her in esteem.  If she somehow thinks I intended my previous post as a denigration of her advice, then I too must blame clumsiness and incompetence.  I did not intend that at all.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 12:22 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Philip, hopping back to the original topic and your response to my comment...I think you may be undervaluing your own experience.   Most of us don't have highly dramatic, immediately story-worthy conflicts.   But most of us have had times when our own emotions were high.  Emotions can be high about little things--and it's those emotions you can use (remembering how it felt.)   Here's a silly example from my own life.  

I played flag football in college, and because I have the worst ball hands in the world, I played line, right defensive guard.  Despite the fact is was flag football, there was a lot of contact, and thus I spent considerable time shoving and being shoved, in close proximity to the center and the right defensive tackle, also shoving and being shoved.  The feelings (physical and emotional) translated quite well into close-order pre-gunpowder battle...the feeling that the opposing line was holding or giving way, the confusion (who really has the ball?), the exultation of breaking through the opposing line. 

Real life doesn't give you plots, no.  It gives you incidents, sensory inputs, emotional responses to situations--and then you take those incidents and situations, those experiences of being humiliated, annoyed, relieved, angry, joyous, those sensory inputs, and arrange them into a plot.  If you're one of the rare people who doesn't feel things, doesn't have emotions, etc., then...you're pretty much stuck.  But I'm betting you have them, you just haven't figured out how to use them.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 12:28 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Oh--and using, rewriting in a different setting, a series of scenes that worked really well for you, is actually one of the ways that you can learn how such scenes are constructed.  I recommend that people take works that really do work for them, and works that they think don't work at all, and analyze both.  Exactly how did Writer A do it right (often harder to see than how Writer B screwed up so badly.)   Read them aloud.  Was it Writer B's word choices?   Choppy rhythm?  Transitions? 

Three Borzoi
Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 8:53 PM
Joined: 4/4/2013
Posts: 18

I'm struggling with what Donald Maass refers to as "micro-tension", tension on every page, which I suspect is the same notion as Elizabeth Moon's "tension that pulls the reader through the story." Almost nothing happened in the movie Argo, and I knew the ending, but I was locked in my seat. Almost nothing happened in Zero-dark thirty, and I knew the ending, and I was bored and restless. Hmmm.

I often think my writing, though good by some measures, fails dramatically at the level of page-by-page, line-by-line tension. Anybody else out there working on this??
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, April 13, 2013 8:42 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Three,

For me the key to understanding tension is to recognize what tension is: the result of two forces pulling your character in opposite directions at once. Tension holds the rope taught between two teams in a tug of war.

I felt similarly to you in your reactions to Argo and ZDT. As with Argo, "nothing" seems to be happening, but that's because the two forces working on the protagonist cancel each other out so perfectly. Good tension should be on the verge of tearing your MC appart from the inside.

Argo was full of tension because the stakes were so high (win/lose, live or die, even war or peace) and the actors absolutely lived in the tension between those poles. Some characters, like the Hollywood folks, expressed the optimistic polarity more; and some characters, like the (I think it was) "photographer" of the group who was terribly pessimistic and fearful, expressed the opposite polarity, but none of them were wholly without fear or, likewise, hope. Affleck's MC presented himself as the can-do optimist, but he played him with all the fear and stoicism of the pessimist. So the MC was rightly at the center of the tension.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, had very little tension. Everything that happened for years of the narrative was simply routine for all involved. It was all folks just doing their jobs, even when that job was torture and assassination. The MC was not at the center of the tension, did not display any complexity in her response to the world. She had her agenda and woe to anyone who got in her way! The very definition of "one dimentional." (At least two dimentions are required for there to be tension.) 

Of course, I think the film makers intended for the tension of that movie to exist in the viewer's response to the incendiary subject matter. The characters treating torture so casually onscreen were meant to elicit tension in the viewer, but sadly, I don't think our society is quite ready to face so openly and without prejudice what we did less than two years ago. So we all went in with our minds made up and the movie didn't do much to upset the equilibrium of our prejudices.

So, your MC must have (at least) two strong forces pulling her apart at any given moment. They needn't follow her throughout the narrative, nor be significant to anyone but her in that moment, but they must captivate her, even if they're just her exhaustion from the night before and the alarm clock by her bed calling her to begin a new day.

Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 3:14 PM
what Donald Maass refers to as "micro-tension", tension on every page

Like most writing "rules", this is one I don't agree with. Constant tension is boring and exhausting.

Three Borzoi
Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 10:30 PM
Joined: 4/4/2013
Posts: 18

I do agree with Maass. But the question one must ask, is what creates micro tension? It doesn't have to be high level tension such as running around, shooting, fighting, etc. For example, any scene in which both protag and antag appear is automatically imbued with tension, no matter what they do or say.  He has a section in his book called "Tension when there is none." Very worthwhile reading and understanding. It is this that I think Ms. Moon is referning to when she says "Pulling the reader through the story." And if there is no tension whatsoever I quickly resort to skimming.
Hannah Grischuk
Posted: Monday, October 14, 2013 4:57 PM
Joined: 10/13/2013
Posts: 5

Really helpful and seriously awesome. Thanks so much!

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