Thursday, September 22, 2011


Hi folks,

I think I've posted this before, but if I have it's been some time so I hope you'll find it useful. This is one of the handouts I use for my writing classes and portions of this appear in both of my writing books, FINDING YOUR VOICE and HOOKED.

          Tension is the stuff of great stories. In fact, without tension, there is no story, at least in terms of literature. Tension is easy to explain, sometimes difficult to execute. It can also be called crisis or conflict. Without the element of tension, stories fall flat.
          Consider this: Dick gets accepted to Harvard, graduates magna cum laude, lands a job in a top Wall Street investment firm. While there, he meets Gwen, a beautiful investment counselor. They begin to date and a year later marry. They have twins, a boy and girl who grow up to be wonderful children, earning top grades in school and eventually progress to adulthood, go to good schools, marry well and give their parents terrific grandchildren. Gwen and Dick never have a fight, invest wisely for both themselves and their clients, and become wealthy. Perfectly compatible, they read the same books, enjoy the same movies, and end up dying in their sleep together at the age of ninety-four. Their funeral is well-attended by the rich and famous, all whom have loved and adored the lucky couple.
          A nice real life...but a complete washout as a fictional story. Their story is interesting only to themselves and perhaps their friends and relatives, but to anyone else it is a major snooze.
          Now, make Dick black and Gwen white and Dick has an enemy...and you have a story (Othello). Or, they have a great love for each other but Gwen’s married (Anna Karenina). Or, he loves her with everything he’s got but she only goes for him after he’s exhausted his passion (Gone With The Wind).
          Mel McKee, an editor and teacher, tells his students that “a story is a war. It is sustained and immediate combat.” He gives four rules for writing a story.
                   (1) Get your fighters fighting, (2) Have something --the stake-- worth their fighting over, (3) Have the fight dive into a series of battles with the last battle in the series the biggest and most dangerous of all, (4) Have a walking away from the fight.
          A story is about a character wanting something intensely and there is an impediment to his or her goal. That’s it. Keep in mind, the thing the character wants need not be something huge and spectacular, but the character must want whatever it is with great intensity. In David Madden’s novel The Suicide’s Wife, the protagonist wants nothing more than to get her driver’s license, but she feels her identity and future depend on getting that license and a corrupt highway patrolman tries to manipulate her and because she wants her license so badly it becomes a terrific story.
          A result of watching too many bad movies and TV series and reading too many potboiler melodramas, is that beginning writers sometimes feel that the best way to introduce drama into their fiction is by way of murders, airplane crashes, bank robbers and the lot, not realizing most roadblocks to desires in real life are much closer to home, in the form of our own personalities, bodies, friends and families and make for much better literature. More passion, says Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, is destroyed at the breakfast table than in a time warp.
          Kurt Vonnegut speaks about story tension in an interview in the Paris Review, when he says,
                   When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.
          What we as writers want to do to our readers is keep them wondering and worrying. So long as they are doing that, they are turning the pages. The easiest (and perhaps best) way of doing this is by raising story questions at the very beginning. A story question is a device to make the reader curious. They aren’t put in question form, but are statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like (from James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel). A knock on the door late at night. (Question: Who could be there?) Jim meets Nancy on the train. (Question: Will they like each other?) Betty didn’t believe in ESP. (Question: Will this disbelief be put to the test?)
          These kinds of beginnings are very effective in creating tension in stories and they can be answered very quickly or they can be long-range story questions that won’t be answered until near the end of the story. Beware of story questions that don’t become fairly irrelevant to the story; the question must not only get the reader involved in the story, it should be justified by the story that follows. If it is a question that isn’t the main question of the story, it must logically lead to that question.
          Poor openings that are often used, are openings such as Frey describes in his book:
·         Ginger’s bedroom had striped wallpaper on the walls and a desk under the window. (questions raised: none.).
·         Ocean City was no place to have fun at night, so Oswald decided to go to bed early and read about how to make a paper airplane. )This is a negative story question; the reader doesn’t want to read on because he doesn’t want to be bored.).
·         The old Ford had a rusted paint job and a horsehair seat that smelled like an old pair of sneakers. (Again, no question being raised-description only.).
·         The warm sea breeze blew in through the open window and the moon overhead was a golden globe on the horizon of the Santa Cruz mountains. (Sounds like a fiction story all right, but it isn’t going to hook a reader.).
          On the other hand, here’s some examples of good opening questions:
·         The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. (The Red Badge of Courage. Question: What are the rumors?)
·         Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. (The Trial. All kinds of story questions are raised here. Why was he arrested? What will happen to him? Who turned him in and why?
          To create anxiety in the reader, you must create a sympathetic character, one who most readers will want to see good things happen to. And then, throughout the story, the reader should be worrying about bad things that will happen to the character.
          Tension is created by first creating story questions, putting the sympathetic character(s) in a situation of menace (to their goals), and lighting the fuse, thereby making the reader wonder and worry.
          Keep in mind that sympathetic characters are not always wholesome characters - they can be the worst individuals on the face of the earth, but there must be something about them that the reader can identify with. That is what is meant by “sympathy” in the literary sense. In the novel, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector is definitely not the traditional protagonist that inspires sympathy in the common acceptance of the term (in the nonliterary sense), but he represents an intellectual strength and control over his emotions that many wish they had. This makes him sympathetic in literary meaning. The word sympathetic in literature doesn’t mean we have sympathy for him or her; it means there is something inherent in the character that we admire or desire for ourselves, in Lector’s case, intellectual strength. The fact that he is helping catch another serial killer is his redeeming feature that can allow us to identify with him as readers and keep turning the pages to see what happens.
          Once you have established tension with your story question, you must keep it going. And escalating to a final act of epiphany in which the main character is changed forever.
          Janet Burroway gives a good example of such a story ending and epiphany when she gives us a story outline about two brothers on a fishing trip who struggle with each other. The protagonist, for most of the story, holds his older brother in contempt, only to discover at the end of the story that they are really bound together by love and family history. This is a clear epiphany, a mental reversal. An immature writer might mistakenly signal this change in a section whereby “suddenly Larry remembered their father and realized that Jeff was very much like him.” Doesn’t work. Why? Because even though the realization is internal, it must be manifested in an action so the reader is able to share the experience and thereby be moved with the character. The way it should be portrayed is - Jeff reached for the old net and neatly bagged the trout, swinging round to offer it with a triumphant, ‘Got it! We got it, didn’t we?” The trout flipped and struggled, giving off a smell of weed and water and fecund mud. Jeff’s knuckles were lined with grime. The knuckles and the rich river smell filled him with a memory of their first fishing trip together, the sight of their father’s hands on the same scarred net...
          Here is a memory, leading to a realization, and it was triggered by an action and sensory details the reader can share. Do you see the difference? There has to be a physical action that leads to the moment of realization that is what makes story...story.
          Another technique to avoid like the plague, is the “John Wayne rescue”. This was the hallmark of many bad Westerns and other movies and poorly-written stories. This occurs when the wagon train is circled by Indians and all appears lost...and out of nowhere the cavalry appears to rescue them. Don’t do this! This is just simply bad writing. The ability to resolve a conflict must come from within and it should be foreshadowed, not foisted as a complete surprise on the reader as something completely foreign to the situation. Also, don’t use this technique (John Wayne rescues) to further the action. There is an awful movie that every now and then makes it rounds on late-night television you may have seen that illustrates this. (Just shows you Hollywood will put out anything)
          I forget the name of the movie, but the plot line is based on a man and woman being trapped inside a new-fangled, high-security office building they can’t get out of until Monday morning. I also don’t remember why, but a thug is chasing them around the building trying to kill them. They’re out on ledges, running down stairwells, etc. Lots of grubby, stereotypical "action" of the lowest rank. At one point, about midway through the movie, the man and woman somehow miraculously get the drop on the bad guy and knock him out with a staple gun. At this point, the movie fails, because they drop the staple gun and leave the unconscious villain and begin running again. This is a grave insult to the viewer’s intelligence. In a life and death situation like this, anyone with any brains at all, would either finish the bad guy off or if they have moral qualms about killing, would stay with him and every time he came to they’d knock him out again. Or tie him up or something. But no, these geniuses elect to start running again. They’re so dumb as characters you want the bad guy to whack them out just for their stupidity. This bit was written into the story just to advance the plot and keep the action going. It’s a trick and any intelligent viewer is going to switch the dial off at this point or walk out of the theater, assuming that they value their time and don’t wish to waste it on movies for the terminably brain-dead. Whenever you get to a place in the story where basic common sense dictates one course of action and you, as writer, have the characters take another (let’s call it an “idiot” course), just to advance the story, then the story is doomed. So beware.
          In today’s world, good fiction echoes life itself in that there are no clear or permanent solutions, that the conflicts of character, relationships and the universe can’t be permanently resolved. There are no more “and they lived happily ever after” kinds of stories, at least ones that anyone would want to read. But the story form demands a resolution of some sort. Take a war story, for example. After the initial skirmish, after the guerrillas, after the air strike, after the poison gas and the nuclear bomb, two survivors emerge from a shelter. They crawl, then stumble to the fence that marks the border. Each grasps the barbed wire with a bloodied fist. The “resolution” of this battle is that no one will ever win. There will never be a resolution, and this epiphany leads the reader to realize a change has been effected from the opening scene in which it seemed worthwhile to initiate a skirmish. In the opening question of conflict was contained the possibility that one side or the other would win; in the resolution of the story it is clear that no one can ever win. (From Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction)
          To sum up, one effective way tension is created is from the onset by use of a “story question”. (Created by the inciting incident - will (s)he resolve the problem?) It is then escalated by a series of incidents in which the protagonist tries to resolve the question, until when all else has failed, there is one last scene in which by his or her own initiative, and triggered by an action, the question is resolved, for bad or good. Out of this must come a change in the situation from whence he or she began, a shift in the main character’s thinking, belief, or take on life. You might look on “story” as someone traveling down a path and the things that happen to him on that trek take him down a different fork in the road in the end than he or she initially intended to or was even aware of.

Hope this helps in your own writing!
Blue skies,


Anonymous said...

Hey Les,
This is great stuff! The key to a story is, yeah, "what happens next?"
Which his how Scherezad (sp?) stayed alive for a 1001 nights. The Sultan wondered what would happen to Sinbad, but Scheherazade kept mum till the next night and avoided the fate of all the Sultan's previous wives. About the second to last graf, Jane burroway's thoughts on tension in the story about the war--I thought of World War I, the first winter in the trenches, 1914, at Christmas, when the Germans on their side of No Man's Land and the British on the other laid down their guns, started singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht)at each other and eventually joined out in No Man's Land for a feast and games of soccer. Generals on both sides, hearing of this, were "up in arms" but could do nothing to get the men to fight till the day after Christmas!
Also, as far as description by itself ruining the beginning of a story, I might refer you to The Lady In The Lake, "The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street. on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless, pale man with a face like a building superintendant was watching the work and looking like it was breaking his heart."
We'll never see the building superintendant again, but the tearing down of structures and breaking of hearts is going to be revisited. Then Chandler just blows you away with sheer description of the Treloar Building interior. I think that way he earns readers' willingness to suspend their disbelief for a few pages.
Your articles always rearrange the way my mind digs things.
cheerio, Brian

Charmaine Clancy said...

LOVE this. So much value in one post. Thanks Les for sharing your literary wisdom :)
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Brian. BTW, the opening you quoted: "...and a hatless, pale man with a face like a building superintendant was watching the work and looking like it was breaking his heart." is, in my opinion, why the description worked. It wasn't simply description--it was description of something that was being torn down and it was because of that that we wonder why this guy is taking it so hard. Agreed?

Thanks, Charmaine--you say the nicest things!

Anonymous said...

Exactly, Les,
We're motivated to read the description that followed, of the Treloar Building, because of the tension built up with wondering about the heartbroken building superintendant. I think it's Chandler's genius to hook us with a scene that's going to disappear from the rest of the story. Only Marlowe, the narrator, continues. I think we like him because he notices. Liking is important too.
cheers, Brian

Les Edgerton said...

Good points, Brian. Also, Chandler is a "place" writer where he often makes a location, such as L.A. a character in his books. We can learn a lot from him!

Anonymous said...

With a character, the building superintendant, who disappears from the rest of the story is what I meant o'course.
Related, is the literary device of the MacGuffin. A thing which is not important in and of itself, like the Maltese Falcon (which was just a metal bird, after all), but which motivates characters to reveal things about themselves. But we don't know what it's about or in it, for awhile through the story...

Les Edgerton said...

A small point--I don't think he's saying the guy's a superintendent--he simply says he has a face LIKE a superintendent. I took it that he had the look of the man who might have built it but wasn't necessarily--that he was a man who had the same level of love for the building as the man who might have built it. Haven't read the book so I don't know, but that was my take on that description. I'd be surprised to find out that he actually was the builder.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Les. My bad, messing with Mr. Chandler's language, scandalous, actually. That little simile of course leaves up to much to the reader. Makes it easier for the reader to identify with the pale man, "with a face like a building superintendant." Which is pretty nifty too because he doesn't have to get into physical description, but we all have a pretty good idea of what such a face would "look like."
Thanks for pointing out a small important point! Brian

Les Edgerton said...

LOL, Brian. Others see me differently--I've heard the word "anal" used in my presence!

(Even paranoid people have enemies...)

Ron Scheer said...

Am currently enjoying Cornell Woolrich's WALTZ INTO DARKNESS. It begins, "The sun was bright, the sky was blue, the time was May; New Orleans was heaven, and heaven must have been only another New Orleans, it couldn't have been any better."

Even with that sunny, care-free opening, you sense that something awful is going to happen...

ssas said...

I like to invoke tension through the feelings of my protagonist. Make them anxious right off the bat without explaining why, it immediately creates a question in the reader's mind.

I was doing it that way before I realized it, and so far I think most of my books and stories start out that way, with an anxious protag.

Les Edgerton said...

Good example, Ron. I have a feeling that somewhere in the next few paragraphs that "calm before the storm" is shattered. Am I right?

Betsy, I totally agree. I try to teach my students exactly that. That there should be tension on every single page, without exception. One example I give them is that if the protagonist stops to get directions to a bar in the neighborhood, she should stop a bum on the street for directions, and he should snarl, "I look like the f**king Chamber of Commerce, lady?" In other words, even the simplest of goals should encounter opposition commensurate to the level of the goal.

ssas said...

ooo, I love that idea of narrowing tension to the smallest possible denominator. I think it's something I forget.