Friday, 1 February 2013

Maintaining Tension

Firstly, let me just say that this is my first time blogging (EVER!), so bare with me just a little.
I struggled for ages thinking about a topic on which to write. Especially one that other writers might be interested in reading. So I asked myself what I would want to gain from this blog if I were reading it. Before I knew it, my memories had hijacked the car and I was back at University in sunny mid-Wales. And I remembered my favourite professor giving one of my favourite lectures – how to maintain tension within a narrative. (So here goes…)

In my youth, I was a bugger for starting a story and not finishing it. “I’ll do it later” or “I don’t know how it should end” were frequent excuses. But my real problem, was that my stories just seemed to drift off and get a bit boring. Since then, I’ve learned that there are a few handy tips and tricks to help you overcome this treacherous impasse.

1.     Do not delay (nor dilly-dally)
If we want to make our story exciting, we need it to grab the reader straight away. In a recent conversation with my brother, he told me:

“I read one of those [Jo Nesbo] books a while ago. It had a good storyline, but it’s about a three hundred pages, and it’s not until the last fifty that anything actually happens.”

I’ve seen this problem before – and will admit to having been guilty of it too. To make the story go and the reader stay, the origins of our conflict should be apparent right there at the start. Maybe not the first line, but certainly in the first couple of chapters. If there isn’t a problem for the characters to solve or adversity for them to overcome within the first act, start again.

2.     Is it believable?
OK, so you’ve introduced your conflict. Now what? Well, before we start frantically scribbling down act two, there’s an important thing we need to check first: Does our conflict match up with the rest of the story?

To explain this, I’ll need to go off on a tangent for a second…

When we create a piece of fiction (or fact, depending on our writing style), we create what is known as a ‘fabula’. It may sound like a medical condition, but it’s an important part of our story. The fabula is the world in which our story takes place, be it Middle-Earth or the East Midlands. When we create our story, we have a fully formed concept of our fabula in our head. Therefore, everything in the story needs to be consistent with the rules of that world.

The threat of a nuclear bomb might be a challenge for James Bond, but frankly Bilbo Baggins is in way over his head. Which brings me to my next point…

3.     Relevance
Sadly, since the rise of what my professor would refer to as “the MTV generation,” attention spans have been decreasing at an alarming rate. And whether we like it or not, we as writers have had to adapt.

Long gone are the days when we could get away with circuitous actions. Elizabeth Bennett can no longer take a stroll into town, visit the grocer, ask about how his family are keeping, leave the shop, wander over to a restaurant for some tea and buns, bump into an old friend who she hasn’t seen since childhood, have a lovely chat, part ways and THEN spot Mr Darcy.

Whilst this account of her day may be accurate, it doesn’t further the story. Unless the grocer’s family will appear at a pivotal part of the plot, we don’t really need to know about them. Our actions need to be relevant to our story and our characters.

Keep what you need in order to get to the next key scene, and have a long hard think about the rest.

4.     Balancing characters and doubting the hero
These should be two points really, but they sort of work in tandem.

Balancing characters in a story is essential. It’s natural for us to want our protagonist to be strong. After all, to an extent, they’re us. But a risk every writer faces is that the story dynamic becomes too one-sided. My professor used to say:

“Comedy is one of the hardest genres to right. Not because writers aren’t funny, but because often all the characters sound the same. ‘That’s you. That’s you. That’s you. And, oh look, that’s you as well. Where are the other characters?’”

If we think of it in terms of archetypes: A hero will always be there to save the day. He or she is the representation of good triumphing over evil. And our evil villain is that which threatens our sense of order and equilibrium.

But Superman with have to try much harder to defeat Doomsday than to thwart the Earthworm Kid. A hero is only as good as the villain they must face. Giving too much power to the hero can potentially turn the readers against them.

So we give our protagonist a challenge to truly test their might. And for a brief moment, (it could be over a couple of sentences or a couple of chapters) it even looks like our hero could lose. Now our readers are gripped. They want to know how things play out. Surely evil can’t triumph over good, can it?

This illusion or misdirection is a fleeting gimmick in the grand scheme of our story, but reminds readers of the risks our characters are taking.

5.     The ticking clock
At first glance it may look like the title of an Edgar Allen Poe poem, but this is a frequently used device for maintaining tension and suspense in writing.

We essentially put a time limit on our situation. There is now a race against time, where our protagonist has to complete the task or face dire consequences. This is used in all genres, ranging from thrillers – “The bomb is rigged to blow! I have to disarm it before the timer runs out.” – to romance – “If I don’t get to the train station in the next ten minutes, the love of my life will be gone forever.” Even the likes of Mills and Boone – “Oh God! My husband’s home! Quick, hide! He’s coming up the stairs! He’s only seconds away!”

6.     Getting the pacing right
When we want to convey tension on the page, we will often find ourselves speeding up. Sentences become shorter, sharper. Words and phrases will have more of a punch or an impact.

But a lot of people forget about the after math: It’s all well and good to have tension and suspense in your story, but let the characters put their feet up with a cup of tea once in a while! Slow down after the event in order to offer relief (not just to the character, but to the reader as well). People can only take a certain amount of tension for so long, otherwise it starts to feel like a beating.

7.     Hooking them in (or “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Chanel”)
Each chapter, no matter how tense or suspenseful, is bound to come to a conclusion. It may not be the great revelation you’ve got planned for the end of the book, but let the readers know that the characters are moving in the right direction. An achievement by the protagonist will feel like an achievement for the reader, if presented right.

But, I hear you ask, what’s to stop them from just closing the book saying, “Well, that’s the interesting bit over. I’m not that bothered about the rest.”?

We want our readers to stick with us. We want them to know that there’s still more to come. So we tease them with treats of the next dilemma – “We have found the secret weapon and can now save the world! But wait…Oh no! The batteries are flat!”

8.     Plot Twists
The infamous twist – that surprising reveal that makes fools of us all – is the weapon of choice for a lot of writers. This can be used to great effect when timed right. When hooking our readers in for another instalment, it is most effective when we present a new revelation about the character or a new demand to be met that puts the characters in jeopardy.

Having gone through so much with our characters, our readers become concerned, eager to discover the ramifications of their actions.

9.     Don’t twist just for the sake of it
Be careful with plot twists, as these can make or break the story. Just as we mentioned in our earlier point about relevance, try to keep it consistent.

A consistent twist? I hear you cry. Why yes! It is important that we make it fit in with the rest of the story. Referring back to my professor, he advised us:

“Don’t add a twist that doesn’t make sense. There’s no point in writing a hard-hitting [piece] about domestic violence, and then at the end the son says, ‘Oh, by the way, Mom, I’M A VAMPIRE!’”

As humorous as this may be to a few, overall it simply doesn’t work.

Tom Everley

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