Monday, April 2, 2012

Karyn Henley Guest Post: "Writers as Weight Lifters: Keeping Characters Off Balance"

A couple of weeks ago I had the great experience of being a teaching assistant at a Highlights Whole Novel Workshop (more on that next week.) But I had the singular good fortune to room with and TA beside award-winning YA author Karyn Henley.

Karyn is one of the sweetest, kindest people I've met (and it's no easy task rooming with a complete stranger in what could be a stressful circumstance. This was the least stressful roomie situation ever.) She's also a Vermont College grad (go VCFA!) and a talented writer AND an accomplished and award-winning song writer. Her novel (BREATH OF ANGEL) is on my nightstand, calling to me, and her second novel (EYE OF THE SWORD; and check out the hunky guy on that cover...) launched while we were in Pennsylvania. Yay, Karyn!

Karyn wrote me the following guest post and I'm delighted to share this fabulous offering.

Novel writers are the nicest cruel people I know. As I write this, I'm at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop with 21 other writers, all wonderfully nice people. But at this moment, with a morning free for writing, all these wonderfully nice writers are putting their characters in peril, pelting them with problems, and blocking their goals. Ah, but there's a reason for our madness. We're creating tension.
Agent Donald Maass is known for telling writers to put tension on every page. Keep the reader in suspense. Raise the stakes. While these axioms are simple to remember, they're not so easy to do. Some writers are reluctant to hurt their protagonists, which creates a boring story. Some writers throw every problem in the world at their characters, which makes the story either unbelievable and cartoonish or unrelenting and burdensome. So how do we create believable tension?
Tension comes in different weights. Writers test the weights to find what will keep the character – and the reader – off balance. The heaviest weights are fate-of-the-world suspense and life-and-death situations, although a child may experience the loss of a pet or an encounter with bullies as end-of-the-world heavy. Midweight tension comes from obstacles that delay a character or reveal a new problem to solve. Added together, several midweight obstacles can build heavy tension, especially with a clock ticking.
We usually know that our stories need at least one heavy weight problem and several midweight obstacles, but we sometimes forget the lighter weights. That's where we get tension on every page. Tension doesn't have to come from a fight or a chase or a disaster. Tension doesn't have to hit the page with a new problem or a ticking clock. Tension doesn't even have to come from facing an antagonist. As long as it keeps the protagonist off balance, it's tension.
Subtext between friends can convey tension. He wants to kiss her. She wants him to. Will they? In scene after scene they don't even touch. The tension builds. Once they kiss, the tension is released. So the writer keeps the tension going as long as possible.
Dialogue between friends can keep characters off balance. If one character says, "I'm applying for a job at Walgreen's," and her friend says, "Great idea," there's no tension. If her friend responds, "Why?" or argues, "You can't," there's tension. How-are-you-I'm-fine dialogue creates no tension. Delete it unless it covers an obvious, tense subtext, in which case the reader knows that the banter hides darker feelings and motives.
A character's goal is to bring some aspect of his life into balance. As you read, notice how writers deny their characters that balance. As you write, select the weights you need, and then shift the balance of your character's external or internal world in every scene. Keep your characters ­– and readers – off balance.

Find out more about Karyn here.


Beth Stilborn said...

I tend to have problems with ramping up the tension in my manuscripts. I've heard to make sure that there are 3 major obstacles put in the way of the character, each one more intense. But that can end up being too episodic, or at least there is that potential.

Thank you for introducing me to the concept of keeping my character off balance in some way, and for showing some lightweight ways of doing so.

Janet Fox said...

Hi Beth - that's a really good point - I love that Karyn has addressed the "microplotting" aspect of tension. Thanks for coming by!