Being a Better Writer: Tension

Welcome back readers! I hope you had a good Thanksgiving weekend! Or, if you’re from a place that doesn’t celebrate that fairly American holiday, a good weekend all the same.

Now, due to the holiday, there isn’t much news to speak of. The only thing I really want to bring up? That later this week (possibly tomorrow) you’re all going to get a post on the success of Jungle so far. And yes, it is a success. How much of one, I’ll leave to the later news post, but I will point out that it’s sitting at five stars on both Amazon and Goodreads so far, which is quite respectable. Given the size of the book, it’s not at all unlikely that more ratings and reviews will trickle in as more people finish it.

Oh, also, apparently you can leave ratings on Amazon now rather than a review? I don’t know what their criteria is for it, but apparently that’s a thing you can do now!

Anyway, Jungle is doing really well, and you’ll all find out how well later this week. For now, I want to talk about tension for this week’s Being a Better Writer, so let’s get right to it!

First of all, why tension? What sort of writing topic is this, and why would I spend a BaBW post on it?

Well, that’s actually a question with a pretty easy answer. See, good tension is hard to do properly, sort of in the same way drama is. If you remember long, long ago, we had a BaBW post on the topic of drama, and one of the things it touches on was the idea of melodrama, which was when young or inexperienced writers would just dump as much plight and misery on a character as possible, along with informing the reader of their exaggerated reactions, in order to elicit a reader response.

Well, creating good tension in stories is similar to creating good drama. Except that it’s often even more difficult to get right than good drama. Tension is, quite literally, a high-wire tightwalk act. And many new readers? They go for the most obvious forms of increasing tension available to them when they think “tension.” In other words, they up the stakes, again and again. They raise the tightrope to higher heights, so that the fall is bigger … but in the process forget a lot of the other bits and pieces that could be used to raise the intensity of the scene.

Okay, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. So let’s back up for a moment and cover some basic definitions first. For starters, what is tension?

Well, let’s start with the dictionary definition, which actually fuses quite well into a definition for writing. The generic definition of tension comes in two flavors, the first of which is “the state of being stretched tight,” the second “a mental or emotional strain.” As an action, tension means “to apply force to something to stretch it.”

These are pretty straightforward definitions, but let’s go one step further with an example that’ll tie back in later and talk about guitar strings. As most of you probably should know, a guitar is a form of stringed instrument made by stretching a number of strings over a wooden frame. Stretched is the key term there: Each of these strings is put under tension. The varying levels of tightness in each string means that when plucked, they will resonate back and forth in waves, vibrating to create a musical note, and in sequence, music.

You can see this pretty clearly in the video there. Each of the strings is plucked and makes a neat wave shape, which in turn creates a pleasant sound. And this only works because of the tension the string is under. If the strings are too loose, they cannot be plucked and will generate no music whatsoever. If the tension becomes too tight, the note grows higher and higher, and if one continues to increase the tension … the string can break.

Now, some of you have doubtless already started to see the comparison here, but tension in our stories is similar to tension in a musical instrument. Done properly, we end up with something that, when “plucked” creates a memorable scene and affects the reader. Done improperly, we end up with something that falls flat or “snaps” the reader out of the book.

For now, though, let’s move on, with plans to return to that example later. Well will come back to it, but for the moment we need to step away from music and strings and instead at long last talk directly about writing.

And to start with, I’d like to bring up a very famous scene from a film (films have written scripts, so it counts) that illustrates tension quite well. The opening of Orson Welles Touch of Evil. You may have seen this before, but if not, it’s a treat. Go ahead, give it a watch.

How’s that for tension? You have this long, unbroken shot of this couple just driving around, but odds are that you weren’t bored. Instead, you were on edge. Because you knew something was wrong, and you knew that something had to give.

That is tension created and executed. Some of you may call it “suspense,” but suspense is the feeling brought about by that tension existing.

So wait, what made the tension? Simple: It’s the audience’s knowledge that something is amiss. Out of the ordinary. In this case, it’s a bomb being placed in the trunk. We see this happen, and then every moment thereafter we know that it’s ticking away, counting down to, well, the inevitable.

But what if we didn’t know? What if one started that scene after the bomb had been placed in the trunk, with the couple stumbling out and getting into their car? What would be the result then?

Well … we can go back and watch it and pretend we don’t know there’s a bomb, but it won’t be nearly so effective since we do know. But we can imagine. And imagining that scene without the knowledge of the bomb? Well … it’s not that exciting or interesting. It’s simply some people going home from their reveling. No dialogue that should keep us interested, etc. About as close as we get to what’s coming is the moment when the woman comments about the strange ticking noise she just heard (which is the timer we as the audience wouldn’t know about winding down).

In other words, it’d probably lose a lot of uninterested people who wouldn’t be sure what they were looking at or why they should be interested in it. But we add in the audience knowledge of “there’s a bomb in the trunk,” and suddenly things get interesting. That knowledge changes how we as the audience see the scene. We know there’s a ticking clock winding down, and with each second that passes we know the inevitable is getting closer, and the car keeps stopping for the crowds and …

Tension transforms the scene. What would be boring without it or even frustrating (after all, getting stopped in traffic over and over again isn’t something most of us look forward to) is suddenly suspenseful with every passing second.

In other words, tension is what pulls the audience in to what would otherwise be a boring, everyday experience. Because we know something is out of the ordinary, and we’re putting that on the scene and the events happening even if the characters aren’t.

Of course, our characters can be aware of the tensions as well. Take the opening to the film Alien. It begins with the protagonists waking up, and going to have breakfast. Initially, the audience is interested because they’re given a unique setting (the ship and the characters waking up from their sleeping pods) to look at, and then the characters laughing and enjoying breakfast together, but very quickly both the audience and the characters are given the hook: They’re not back at Earth, but a long, long ways from it, as their ship has picked up a strange signal that might be a distress call and has adjusted their course accordingly.

That’s the moment that begins the tension for both the audience and the characters. What was straightforward and ordinary now has a specter hanging over it: This unusual signal, which may be a distress call. From that point on in the film, until they reach the source of the signal (which brings all new tensions) both the audience and the characters are left going about their day to day operations on the ship … but with this strange signal hanging over their heads.

That signal, and the tension it brings as both audience and characters wonder what it could be (and prepare themselves accordingly) helps keep the audience invested in the story.

Sands, I can take a more recent example as well. Just last night I started reading a recently released book which was up for several awards (and is quite good). But I had to note its use of tension (as I was thinking of this post) in keeping the reader invested. In all honesty, the actual plot hook doesn’t happen until page 58. It’s the first inciting incident (You could make the case that others are, but they’re not as gripping). The moment where that reaches it’s conclusion and the plot really starts? Page 120. Of a book with 466 pages.

But that doesn’t mean any of the bits before that are boring. We have an introduction to the characters, and right alongside them we’re given an element of the plot that introduces tension: We know the characters don’t like it and are wary of it, see them working around it and giving it fearful response … which in turn raises the tension, even if only a little bit. But that little bit is enough to keep us interested. And as the characters do other “out of the ordinary” things that raise the tension in small bits here and there, we stay invested, some tension dropping out and other small ones moving in while over it all this looming tension of what is this thing they all fear slowly builds … culminating in the plot hook and then the inciting incident.

So really quick, what we’ve established so far is that tension is often achieved by something being out of place among the ordinary. An element of the story that is, like the guitar strings from earlier (told you it’d be back, and it’s still true), stretched in some way to introduce an element of uncertainty or suspense to things.

Now, one thing I wish to make clear at this point, however, is that while all my examples of tension used so far in this article have been in openings, tension is by no means limited to an opening. Tension can be used anywhere in a story, and for any length of time, from long to short.

For example, a scene in which an antagonist pulls a knife and takes a hostage from the main cast, holding it against their throat may resolve in a few paragraphs, but those few paragraphs introduce a very “high tension” moment for an audience. A scene such as this, however, can take place at any point in the story, from start to finish.

Tension can come in many forms too. There’s the long, drawn-out tension of the characters and audience knowing that something is off and wrong, even if they don’t know what. There’s more immediate tensions, like a bomb or a gunfight.

However, all of these tensions require care to put into a story. Now, at long last, we go back to the guitar from earlier.

Picture each “tension” in a story as strings on a guitar. A story element taken and “stretched.” Now, when it’s “plucked,” or in other words referenced in the story, it makes a “note” or in this case, an emotion of suspense that catches the audience’s attention.

However, what happens if you pluck all the strings on a guitar at the same time? Do you get music? Or just noise.

You know the answer. It’s the latter. So it is with tension, and why so many young authors mess up their tension. In the spirit of the analogy, they mash as many strings as possible to try to increase tension. Or they crank a single string or a few strings as tightly as they can.

But neither creates a good story. The book I started reading last night weaves at least a half-dozen tensions through its opening chapters for those first 120 pages before the plot really takes off, but it doesn’t mash them all at once, or even at the same time. Nor is each equally “tight.” Some are looser.

What the author does is “pluck” each “string” in the proper time and place to weave a “song” of tension that keeps the pages turning, To make a pleasant medley that constantly reminds the reader of the various out-of-place elements at play so far without overpowering one or the other or dragging out one note for too long.

Now, with that said, some of you may be thinking that this post reminds you a lot of pacing. Well, pat yourselves on the back, because you’re correct that it does. Playing out tension is a form of pacing, a way of keeping an audience engaged at the right moments. Lack of tension can be vital for a breather moment for the audience, while the introduction of tension in new forms is often what triggers a buildup to another climactic action scene.

In other words, knowing how and when to use tension properly is closely linked with knowing how to pace one’s story. Which is in part why so many have issues with tension when starting their hand at writing: Pacing is one of the harder skills to master, and with tension being closely linked to it, well … It’s easy to connect the dots and see that they’re going to be of similar difficulty to get right.

Which, at this point, is a good jumping-off point into talking about some of the mistakes authors make with tension. Which, will, in turn, bring us back to our friend the guitar (which just fits this discussion so well).

We already mentioned mashing on the strings, hitting as many of them as possible to create a cacophony of noise. Some stories have too many sources of tension, a guitar with a dozen or more strings that’s incredibly hard for a reader to keep track of. Others are improperly tuned, the balance of tension off with too many high or low “notes.”

Or there can be too few notes to grip some of your audience. Sands, in Hunter/Hunted one of the valid complaints made about the story was that some of the sources of tension didn’t hit for some readers as they weren’t the type of reader that felt tension from those notes, and there weren’t enough other notes for them to feel satisfied.

Which does bring up a very valid point: Tension is highly subjective to the whims of the audience. The earlier example of the opening to Alien? While that opening and its tensions work for some, you’ll also find people who cite it as boring and will immediately pull out their phones until “something interesting happens.”

Does this mean the opening to Alien is bad? Well, no. Just that it doesn’t appeal to some people. Just like different genres of music don’t appeal to the same audience, different forms of tension in books won’t appeal to everyone the same way.

Now, does this mean that they’re bad? No. But it does limit your audience, even if your tension is good (bad tension, like hammering notes, appeals to no one). So it’s a good idea to have some sort of idea about what sort of audience you’re appealing to when you start putting tension in your story.

But you can mess things up other ways. Again, one mistake I made in Hunter/Hunted was drawing some tensions out for too long. Doing that is akin to stretching out a note on a guitar string, holding it until either the audience finds it too much, or worse, the string snaps, the suspension of disbelief breaking entirely and the audience walking away.

I’ve read books that have done both, books where I’ve finally just said “Get on with it already” and been pulled out.

See how tension is hard to do right?

But oh, when it’s done well … it’s like a symphony in the background of a story. Blending with pacing to make something the audience can lose themselves in. Difficult to do properly … but a vital part of any story.

So, pulling everything back for the recap, what is “tension?” It’s when an element of a story is put under force of some kind in order to elicit a response from the audience. A good example is something being out of place and slowly building as an otherwise “normal” day goes along. Tension, done properly, can elicit suspense. Usually, it’s used to keep interest while there aren’t big, climactic moments going, and to build up to them.

Again, if we think of story elements as strings of a guitar, tension is what allows those elements to resonate with the audience, creating “music” that keeps them involved and interested. A creator has to know which notes to “pluck,” or bring to the audience’s attention, at the proper times to keep them invested as the song slowly “builds.”

Again, this topic, like pacing, is pretty tough and definitely on the high-end as far as writing skills. So, like pacing, don’t focus on doing it perfectly the first time. Tension is a delicate balance, much like tuning a string, and it takes a lot of practice. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it as we write or read, we’re just thinking “Get from this point to that point.”

But, if we strive for a book that works on more levels than just our action, or our characters, figuring out what elements of tension we use to keep people engaged, and how we use them, can be key.

So keep it in mind.

Good luck. Now get writing. And if you liked this post, support the creator and help keep the place ad-free! Purchase a book, or become a monthly supporter on Patreon!

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