Mark Terry

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I'm So Tense

January 25, 2007
I've been thinking about tension lately. Not my own, although if my dream last night that I had gone back to work at the hospital is any indication, I may be feeling a little stressed (I know I was when I woke up from that nightmare).

No, I'm thinking about tension in your writing. If you've had enough pieces rejected and actually gotten comments back from agents or editors, somewhere along the lines you're likely to have received the comment, "Lacks tension."

This doesn't mean action on every page. You can have an exciting, action-based piece of fiction that lacks tension. Haven't you ever read a thriller where it just seems ... by the numbers? Haven't you ever read something with no action at all that was very compelling?

One of the reasons I'm thinking about this is I'm reading a manuscript by a friend and the writing is quite good, but I keep thinking, "It lacks tension."

I thought I'd quote from the best book I've ever read on writing, "Make Your Words Work" by Gary Provost. Here's from his chapter on Tension:

"Tension is not just something that you put into your dramatic last scene when the ax murderer is hiding in the closet. It is a cord, or a series of cords, that stretch across every paragraph that you write. And tension is not always a matter of life or death. 'Will he kiss her?' is tension. 'Will she slap his face or melt in his arms?' That is tension. Tension is a vital element in everything that you write. It is the thing that makes your reader turn pages.

"Get your reader into that state of 'uneasy suspense' and keep him there. That means the reader should always be uncertain about what's coming up and should always be asking questions. Tension can come from what's happening in a story, from the words and sentences you use to tell the story, and even from the fact that you're telling the story. 'Why is he telling me this?' is a reader question which creates tension."

Some writers, typically unpublished, don't choose their verbs appropriately. Their characters get out of bed instead of jumping, leaping, crawling, falling, stumbling or dragging themselves out of bed. Some writers choose, for whatever reason, to eschew (hey, I finally got a chance to use that word) drama.

One of the problems I often see in writers who are published and aren't as good as they should be, or in good writers who aren't yet published, is that their main characters get along too well with everybody. In fiction, you can really keep the tension by giving everybody your main character interacts with an agenda (kind of like in real life). Even if you're writing a cozy mystery about a little old lady, that doesn't mean that her neighbor likes her, her daughter doesn't want her in a nursing home or is annoyed every time she shows up, but pretends to be polite, that the woman who colors her hair doesn't accidentally insult her or grate on her nerves. I don't know about you, but I've finally gotten to a point in my life where I get along with most people and enjoy the eccentrics, but that doesn't mean that long exposure to them wouldn't drive me insane. I'm quite forgiving of people's quirks these days because I can smile and go back home to my office.

I also like to have characters talk at cross-purposes. There's nothing quite like having your main character ask a seemingly straightforward question only to have it answered obliquely, evasively, or in such a way that the reader--and possibly your character--believes that they're lying or holding information back. That creates tension.

So... feeling tense yet?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

That going back to work nightmare is the worst!

I don't have anything to add to this because I really just agree completely. The trouble with a lot of writing is that it just sits there. The words are fine but somehow there's nothing going on.

I spent yesterday doing some rewriting on our new mystery and it mostly involves the detective interviewing people. But I am hoping there is tension there.

It struck me that in the past, sometimes people divulged information in our books a bit too readily. This time they put up more of a struggle.

The people our detective encounters don't want to talk. They are evasive. They may be lying. Some of them are more interested in telling him about something that interests them than in giving out the sort of information he's looking for. Each interview is a bit of a fight for one reason or another. At least we hope it comes off that way. Otherwise it's going to be a pretty damn dull book!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

That's always been a tough spot for me. Anyone who has ever been in sales knows that the momenet you interact with a customer, there's tension, good or bad. The worst thing you can do is let up on the tension. You've lost the customer. He may like you better, but you've lost him. Same thing in writing. The tension is there because the reader is involved. No tension, no reader.

Now to practice what I preach.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

It really is hard. I think I'm quite lucky when it comes to writing about Derek Stillwater, because he has so many issues and you could argue that he doesn't work or play well with others. In The Serpent's Kiss, the FBI agent he's working with describes him well to her boss, as saying, he's not interested in promotion or trials or appearances. All he's interested in is stopping an attack. And that's true and makes things simpler, because Derek can be rude and hostile and cut corners, etc., and his interactions with other people, whether they like him or not, is going to tend to be colored by where his priorities are. Not every writer has that option.

Eric, I would think that in your books, most everybody who John interacts with has a pretty good idea that he has the Emperor's ear, and that's going to tend to make them rather nervous (or obsequious), and since he's known rather derisively as John the Eunuch, there's a fair amount of contempt (and fear) all at the same time.

When I think about this, the perfect example is probably Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels. I commented to Michael when I interviewed him that in some ways Harry brought his own conflict with him. Michael sort of mused, "Has baggage, will travel."

One reason I think it's so perfect in those novels is these are not action packed novels. They are slow, methodical whodunnits, police procedurals. Yes Harry views himself as being on a mission and as a result, rubs everybody the wrong way, including people who like, love and/or respect him. In the latest, Echo Park, he's sleeping with a woman who is an FBI agent and he makes some comment about you either live these cases or you're a fake and she sort of rolls her eyes and mutters something about "the Zen of Harry," which I thought was beautiful. Because as anybody who's been married or in some sort of relationship can usually attest, you can love, admire and respect someone and even be happily married, but that isn't to say there isn't friction. And that friction may even be a good thing.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I think some of us prepublished peeps are nervous about using dramatic verbs because we are afraid to go too far. Middle ground where we excite the reader but don't sound like drama-mamas is a hard place to visualize. I never know where to stop and I never know when I go to far.
I like fast moving books so don't describe too much. I dont' care for the lavender curtains or what kind of couch she's sitting on. So I know I cut too much discription out. Action writing is the hardest. Sometimes when I watch an action scene on TV I try to write it in my head, "He jumped off the building? or He lept three stories, landing in the dumpster below" Oh no, should that have been smelly dumpster? where do you stop? where do you start?
Good topic, Mark.

2:58 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Just for myself, I remind myself to dig deep into the emotional lives of the characters. If I pull out my guts to write a story, it seems to click with the readers more.

Robert Gregory Browne called it Method Writing. I love that description!

It's exhausting, but between that and my ADD, it helps me keep conflict and tension in my work, LOL.

3:46 PM  
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