Dimension means contradiction.
— ROBERT McKEE
In “What I Saw from Where I Stood,” Grief is a worthy opponent. Charles uses his love for Dulcie to combat Grief. For Dulcie, Grief keeps taking form: first the hoodlums, then the pestilence. We don’t know if she—and she and her partner—will make it or not. That’s the tension in the story. Dulcie and Charles are good and young and strong. But they have been hit hard. Will they make it? That’s the tension. To find out the answer to that question, we track the battle that is the story. Even the title indicates this is a report from the front lines, an eyewitness account.
Good poems always have tension, too. In Sebastian Matthews’s “Buying Wine (p. 70), the children have a powerful hope that things will be okay in their family; but the adult has all the power and, in this case, is not safe. But he has young children. Opposing forces. In a play or memoir or comic, the tension lines dictate the story. The more tense a piece is, the more readers will be attracted to it.
Read two pieces in this textbook, from two different genres. For each piece, find the four elements of tension. What are the opposing forces? Remember: The “battle” can be between two people or two forces. Are the opposing forces equally matched?
Generalizations kill tension. Another habit writers accidentally fall into is writing general instead of writing specific. “They fought” sums up what happened; no tension there. The summary gives a general impression and will never be as tense and interesting as us getting to see the specifics of how. “Carlo sliced the letter across Joey’s face, and the papercut beaded blood drops on Joey’s pale cheek.”
Compare “it was such a drag driving across town and always boring” to the paragraph detailing Dulcie’s highway-avoidance rituals. Detail—getting very specific—is actually a method you use to create and sustain tension.
The business of the novelist is not to chronicle great events, but to make small ones interesting. —ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER
Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers, employs this principle. He avoids the general and always names the specifics, which increases the tension in his award-winning writing. Notice how the visual details, the images, increase the tension in this piece.
A good diver reveals himself in the way he gears up. He is at one with his equipment. He knows where every piece goes; every strap is the perfect length, every tool expertly placed, and everything fits. He moves instinctively, his hands and stuff in a swoop-tug-and-click ballet until he is transformed into sea creature. He rarely needs help. If another diver moves to assist him, he will usually decline, saying, “No, thank you” or, more likely, “Don’t touch my shit.” He favors ten-dollar knives over the hundred-dollar versions because when he loses the cheaper ones, he does not feel obligated, under the pressure of narcosis, to risk his life searching the bottom to rescue them. He cares nothing for the prettiness of his gear, and often tattoos it with patches, stickers, and graffiti that testify to past dive exploits. Neon colors do not exist for him; greenhorns who choose those hues don’t have to wait long before hearing the boat’s opinion on such loudness. When he is fully geared up, a good wreck diver looks like a German car engine; more ordinary divers resemble the interior of a child’s toy chest.
Kurson could simply say that professional wreck divers relate to their equipment differently than amateur divers. The “versus” is implied: good divers versus newbies. However, there’s not a lot of tension there. The fight isn’t really equal; of course the better divers are better.To keep the tension in this passage high, Kurson uses specifics. We see that the quirks of the great divers all have a reason, an important reason. The better divers are smart. They’re odd, they’re messy, they’re arrogant (“Don’t touch my shit”). They have to be, in order to survive. The same specific qualities that aid them in getting dressed, on land, Kurson shows us, are the very ones that let them live while others may die.
Write from Close Up
He sat in the room for a long time.
What do you see in that sentence? What image appears in your mind’s eye? What do you feel about the “he”? Anything at all?
The writer of this sentence has generalized time (it’s a “long” time, but we have no idea how long and, more important, when). The writer has also generalized space. It’s just generally a room. There’s no situation. There’s not actual space we can touch and move around in.
There is no tension because there’s nothing there.
Write from close up. Be in the time—the exact moment—and the space—Apartment 4D, Sunset Heights, golden retriever and girlfriend on sofa—you are writing.
Distance kills tension. You want to avoid distance. Write from a close-up position, tight with your characters, the details, and the emotion; not from too far back. Your images training in Chapter Four has prepared you to write from within the experience, not hovering above, a reporter, or hiding behind the veil of time.
Many beginning writers write as though they are on a stage. The audience—the reader—is looking at the curtain, waiting for it to rise. But the beginning writer often reports to the audience—so that the play is going on behind the curtain. The writer sees it, and explains what is happening back there. This is not very pleasurable for the audience. We want the intermediary removed.
When you write, move closer, and you will increase the tension every time. Be in the room with the famous musician; be in the yard that is forbidden, looking for your lost baseball; be driving with your grieving girlfriend, clueless as to what to do next. Don’t write aboutthe experience, or you kill the tension. Don’t look back, remember, think, or reflect: Stay in the moment. And stay close in. Write from a few inches away from your subject.
A lot of what you are doing when you work to create or increase the tension in a piece of creative writing is about creating oppositions.That is, you set qualities in the work against each other. A beautiful beach scene is the location for a woman telling her husband she wants a divorce. A boy tells a girl how much he hates his parents while carefully cleaning out the family garage, devoted to his task (his dialogue shows us he just wants to look cool in front of the girl).
In each of these cases, the setting and the action clash. Tension is created by working with exterior visual oppositions. But oppositions also must be created within characters.
The good guy has to have some weaknesses. Seinfeld is a neat-freak and germaphobe. The bad team has to have some good traits. Newman is a brilliant strategist and usually gets what he wants. Hamlet is kind and insightful but hesitates to make decisions. The Joker is evil, but very, very funny. Readers have to be able to connect with both “good” and “bad” characters for the piece to work on them.
Consider the power of juxtaposition. If the kittens are terribly cute, and you smile when you play with them, and their ribbons are pink, you are putting cuteness next to delight next to adorableness—there’s not any surprise there. There’s nothing for the reader to engage with. No tension.
You create tension when you put things that don’t rest easily next to each other: adorable kittens, deep rejection, your angry mother. A broken barrette, a brother in trouble, a new car, the perfect pizza. A great date, a car accident.
Three useful strategies help you create and sustain tension in a piece of writing: the “thermostat”—the amount of tension in any given line or sentence; layers, which allow you to create and increase tension by moving your work from the simple to the complex (e.g., more than one thing is going on at once; you aren’t stating the obvious); and, dialogue, used in special ways. All three strategies help create the oppositions and layers that make creative writing interesting to read.