Monday, July 4, 2011

The Heart of Great Stories: Tension

Tension. It lies at the heart of every great story. As writers, we should strive with every scene and every chapter to increase the tension in our stories, to build the tension moment by moment so that our readers are never tempted to set our book down and head out to the nearest pizza party.

This is increasingly true in modern fiction. Back in the day, when Herman Melville could compose page after page of detailed narrative having to do with the inner workings of a cetacean ear (and readers would put up with it), tension developed slowly in a work of fiction. Melville’s most exciting moments in Moby Dick came in the closing chapters of the novel, and by then readers were either asleep or determined or insane enough to finish.

Today, readers – especially you teens and tweens – wouldn’t put up with that kind of pacing for a minute. Frankly, neither would I. [True confession: I gave up on Moby a bit more than halfway through, and rented the movie to discover the rest. Don’t tell your English teacher.]

We want and expect a high degree of tension in our stories, so the question is, how do we writers handle it?

I’ll answer this over the course of a few posts, but here is one thing I talked about briefly in my plotting workshop at New England SCBWI this past spring: tension means having to make your protagonist suffer.

You and I are good people. We don’t want to hurt anybody. If you are, like I am, a mom (and I imagine even if you are not), that goes double: every child on the planet is your child and you will protect him or her even if it means throwing yourself in front of a moving train. Your characters are your children. So it stands to reason – you’re going to shield your character from every hurt, bump, scrape, bruise, terror. Right?

Not if you are a novelist in search of tension. You must be willing to watch your protagonist suffer every imaginable kind of horror. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss all but dies, again and again, and every one of her near-death experiences heightens the tension of the books. Suzanne Collins does not protect Katniss from life experiences. As a result we readers are sucked into the story, rooting for Katniss – and Katniss learns every step of the way how to better protect herself and those she loves.

Tension in the form of character suffering, then, sucks readers into your story, but it serves a double purpose: it allows for character growth and change. Which is another aspect of great story-telling.


lindenmcn said...

Janet, that was EXACTLY what I needed at exactly the right time. Suffering is so much more concrete to develop plot around than the notion of 'tension". Brava, friend! --Linden McNeilly

Janet Fox said...

Oh, excellent, Linden! So happy that this was helpful. Hugs - Janet