Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Tension’

Escalating tension in stories, novels

In Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

Like pacing, tension in a short story or novel is what compels readers to turn the pages.

Pacing is a structural and line-level element of the writing process, while tension centers on conflict.

Tension, according to the dictionary, is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue and plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, the peak or most intense part of the telling. The drive toward that climax is the point-of-view or main character’s unmet goal or need, moving the story forward.

Stories with a good level of tension make the reader want to find out what will happen next and next and so on. Will the romantic girl get her guy, despite all the obstacles to their love, or will the (fill-in-the-blank) solve, find, resolve or get something?

The main character faces external and internal opposition through the story’s beginning, middle and end in the story’s movement. External opposition comes from life events or the other characters blocking the main character from getting the main want. Internal opposition comes from the character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

The opposition is the result of both internal conflicts, which are about characters, and external conflicts, which are about plot.

As the story progresses, the tension escalates. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation. The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense.

Instead, the tension needs to vary, as well as the pace, to add interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace—the tempo or rate of the story’s progression—shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and short, clipped dialogue, creating a lot of white space on the page. A slow pace

emphasizes important moments in the story; a quick pace hurries it along.

Tension is what keeps the story tight through those slow and fast movements.

More Tension (in Novels)

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a yet-to-be published novelist, tension seems to be the banal of my existence.

I understand what the concept means when I think of a taut rubber band, compared with that element of writing that keeps readers turning the pages. But when it comes to applying the concept to writing, I struggle with the required maintenance.

Though I already addressed tension last month in my blog challenge to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty,” I now realize that I have to tweak my understanding.

A writer friend of mine who has read the first few chapters of my novel, “Dropping Colors,” wrote in her comments, “Think about tension all the time: maintain micro-tension throughout the story, in conversations, within Kate’s head. You always need conflict to drive the story forward.”

Kate Letts is my protagonist, or point-of-view character, who loses everything she owns in an apartment fire and tries to replace her lost things only to find something better.

My writer friend loaned me her copy of “The Fire in Fiction: passion, purpose and techniques to make your novel great,” by Donald Maass, published in 2009.

In chapter 8, “Tension All the Time,” Maass states that conflict is story, but that one large, overriding conflict is not all that drives the story. Conflict also needs to be present in smaller ways through micro-tension, or the tension within each moment of the story’s unfolding that keeps readers curious about what happens next.

Tension is not a function of plot, Maass said. In dialogue, it comes through the emotional friction between the characters speaking; in action, from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it; and in exposition, that character’s conflicting emotions.

As I understand what Maass is saying, tension boils down to feelings and emotions in each moment of the story. And as stated in my earlier blog on the same subject, tension is the result of character conflict: internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.

Tension is what turns cardboard or cliché characters into sentient beings that experience the world through the filter of their own emotions, experiences and worldviews.

As soon as you put the point-of-view characters in a setting, what makes the environment become real? It’s not just the details, but how the character experiences them. This character feels his or her world, just as we all do.

See Zoey the cute dachshund’s blog at http://zoeyspaw.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/dog-paws-promotion-business-cards-included/

Achieving Tension in Storytelling

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 24, 2012 at 11:00 am

Tension in a short story or novel is part of what keeps readers turning the pages, as do the storytelling, plot line and character development.

The dictionary definition of tension is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue or plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, or the peak or most intense part of the telling.

Tension, as defined by the dictionary, is the balance between strongly opposing elements.

In a story, those elements are the external and internal opposition to the protagonist’s or main character’s achievement of a goal.

External opposition could come from the other characters or life events blocking the main character from getting what he or she wants. Internal opposition comes from a character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

Tension, in other words, is the result of character conflict. Internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.

Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Readers have a reason to feel connected with the main character, because he or she is in conflict and has an unmet goal. The character’s life isn’t perfect, giving readers a way to commiserate.

Tension is that key element that drives a story forward and escalates as the story progresses. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation.

The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense, even in fast-paced thrillers and crime novels.

Varying the tension, as well as the pace, adds interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace – the tempo or rate of the story’s progression – shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and dialogue (which creates a lot of white space on the page, letting the eye speed across the words).

Slowing the pace here and there emphasizes important moments in the story, so readers can experience the emotional impact. Plus, it builds the story slowly to maximize the payoff, or the climax.