Creating Tension

Here’s a decent post at Writer Unboxed: Seven Ways to Add an Undercurrent of Tension

Cliff-hangers and nail-biters aren’t the only ways to keep readers turning pages. When you develop their inherent conflict, quieter, almost insignificant-seeming moments can successfully produce an itch in your reader that only reading on will effectively scratch.

This caught my eye because on Quora, I recently answered a question about protagonists (“Does the protagonist have to be the most important character?”) by pointing out, among other things, that occasionally an author will separate the role of the primary pov character from the role of protagonist, and that this provides a new source of tension by allowing the reader to conceal from the reader the mind and motivations of the protagonist. You don’t see this at all often, but it’s such an interesting technique. Mary Catelli referred to this technique recently in a comment, too.

Every now and then, I’ve written a post about this. For example, here’s my post about this technique when I realized Gillian Bradshaw had done this in her Magic’s Poison series. I notice, looking back at this post, that I refer to “a long unpublished fantasy novel that I wrote ages ago” where I did the same thing. That was, of course, the Death’s Lady story, now out, so that’s neat. I see that post was written in March 2019, so just about two years before I released Death’s Lady. How time flies!

Anyway, back to the topic: Many ways to create tension.

I’m very sure that separating the pov from the protagonist is not going to be one of the seven ways suggested in this post at Writer Unboxed, but still, since I’ve been thinking about tension, sure, what are those seven ways? Let’s take a look:

1) Someone fakes it.

In Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, our protagonist, Pat, is trying to control a tendency toward violent outbursts

Okay, this point appears to involve the protagonist “faking” an emotional even keel. I’m not sure I’d consider this “faking” anything; it seems to me that striving for emotional self-control is a good thing to do regardless of whether the protagonist is trying to fool anyone about their actual emotional state. Still, sure, this sort of thing seems like it could add tension to the narrative.

I feel like I should point out that if the author adds too much emotional angst to the character, I’m going to be pushed away and may not finish the book. That’s me, of course, and perhaps not readers in general. Nevertheless, my tolerance for this form of tension may be low, depending on what kind of heightened emotions we’re talking about. I strongly prefer characters with ample emotional self-control, even if they’re inwardly upset.

2) The setting exudes conflict

In these passages from Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a bright student named Elwood is catching his first glimpse of the reform school he’s been sentenced to for a crime he didn’t commit: “He expected stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. …”

Yes, here the setting — and the overall situation — is likely to produce plenty of conflict and tension no matter what else the author does.

3) The description evokes emotion

This is from Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande: It was my fourth week in surgical training. The pockets of my white coat bulged with patient printouts, laminated cards with instructions for doing CPR and using the dictation system, two surgical handbooks, a stethoscope, wound-dressing supplies, meal tickets, a penlight, scissors, and about a buck in loose change. As I headed up the stairs to the patient’s floor, I rattled.

First, sure, I think good description can and should evoke emotion. Second, this is perfectly fine as a passage with a lot of description. I do feel sympathy for this young doctor. Third, I wonder why the narrator hasn’t dropped nearly all those items in a locker or on a desk or something. I doubt it’s necessary to carry around instructions for CPR or meal tickets.

A few more, let’s see …

4) Desire goes unfulfilled

5) Motives are questioned

6) A mind-body disconnect

I wondered about this one. I know what springs to mind here for me is various SF scenarios involving a REAL disconnect between the mind and the body, or else the sort of thing Ryo experiences in Tuyo, when he can’t trust that what he thinks and feels and rememebers is actually real. I don’t think those are the sorts of things the author of this post means. So what does she mean? Here it is:

In Kate Allen’s A Fear of Flying, the man sitting beside her anxious protagonist, a stranger currently referred to as “Window Seat,” says: “As an engineer, I feel like I have some kind of civic duty to let you know air travel is completely safe.”

She’s heard it all and read it all before. She hates when people say this. “Until it isn’t.” She means to say it only to herself, but it comes out through her lips anyway. She immediately regrets speaking it, for her own sake. Now, she’s shattered her own illusion of safety that she’s been struggling to construct. “I mean, I know that, but it’s like my body doesn’t.” she continues after a moment.

Okay, that’s fair, though relatively … I’m trying not to say boring. But compared to the sorts of disconnection I had in mind, well, this sort of thing is perhaps not as interesting. Still, an author could certainly add tension to a story in this way. This is the general “protagonist must overcome personal fears and doubts in order to face xxxx” scenario. That sort of thing does happen all the time in every kind of fiction.

7) Evasive dialogue

Hmm. Like what?

An example is provided from a YA novel, Erica George’s dual-timeline debut, Words Composed of Sea and Sky — a great title, by the way, so good that I immediately went to Amazon and looked it up. It does sound like a promising story, except for this bit here:

Leta is astonished when Captain Churchill returns after his rumored death. She quickly falls for him. But is she falling for the actual captain or the boy she constructed in her imagination?

A sea captain is not a boy. I mean, what? And falling for someone who doesn’t exist, someone you constructed in your imagination, and then transferring those feelings to a real person you don’t actually know, is so blindingly, blazingly stupid that I flinch from the whole idea. The reviews are great, though. Fine, fine, I’ll pick up a sample and maybe eventually find out if the author can pull off this particular aspect of the plot.

Anyway, after quoting a brief passage from this book, the author of the post goes on:

Pretending. Trampling on social mores. Assuming. Admitting shame over a slight. Then, a plot twist that puts her feelings to the test...

Well, that does sound very YA. But the “guess what I’m really feeling and thinking” style common in some YA doesn’t appeal to me. I think this is something you’ll probably see more in a story that’s more angsty — a story that’s about feelings. This is a kind of tension that probably wouldn’t work for me as a reader. I’d be yelling at the character, “For heaven’s sake, TELL HIM THE TRUTH!”

Evasive dialogue in other contexts would be fine though. If the character is a spy, a thief, a government agent, a superhero, a vampire, or whatever, and concealing that through evasive dialogue, I’d enjoy that. Evasiveness in general is fine. It’s just evasiveness about feelings that strikes me as tedious.

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2 thoughts on “Creating Tension”

  1. That link to the post on Bradshaw doesn’t work, it comes back here.

    This is pushing me to take a look at a fanfic the Teen sent me for a setting I know very little about (FF VII) which even with that handicap was gripping as well as full of tension to figure out how the author did it. If I get it figured out soon I’ll drop back here and report.

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