Sanity is madness put to good uses.
— GEORGE SANTAYANA
The piece seems fine, in many ways. It’s showing action, describing people, including setting, staying in one point of view. The characters are doing things. But somehow, the piece falls flat. Not a lot is happening. The narrator is late, but what are the consequences? Will anything result from these events? Is there any danger, really? A true problem?
A person wakes up, goes to work, finds her aunt, and collects a dog into her arms.
Readers say: So what? Why are you telling me this?
You don’t ever want your reader saying “So what?” You always want your reader saying, “How is this going to turn out? What happens next?”
How do you move from “So what?” to “What’s next?” Set the thermostat. One person wants something strongly and is not able to get it. Right away, and all through the piece. Then, immediately, you change the level of tension, increasing or decreasing it. You change the thermostat. And never let your reader go.
Read the story “What I Saw from Where I Stood” by Marisa Silver (p. 251). Make a list of the three most tense scenes or sections in the story. Then write a short comparison/ contrast of the tension in the opening of this short story and the opening in Akhil Sharma’s “Surrounded by Sleep” (p. 171). Which is the more tension-filled opening? Why?
Compare the passage on page 225, about the alarm clock going off, to the first paragraph from Marisa Silver’s story “What I Saw from Where I Stood”:
Dulcie is afraid of freeways. She doesn’t like not being able to get off whenever she wants, and sometimes I catch her holding her breath between exits, as if she’s driving past a graveyard. So, even though the party we went to last week was miles from our apartment in Silver Lake, we drove home on the surface streets.
This paragraph has more tension than does the first example. What contributes to the tension in this passage?
First of all, a woman named Dulcie (and just naming a character creates a little bit of tension—we will invest more in someone with a name than in “the girl” or “a man”) is afraid. There is a clear threat. Weird, but clear: freeways.
Dulcie drives the other person in the story home the long way. She wants something. To avoid something? To extend her time with the driver? To delay going home?
The “I” (the narrator) catches Dulcie “holding her breath.” Dulcie’s tense. That makes us tense. Plus, we worry about the effect of all of Dulcie’s desires on the narrator: the fear of freeways, the route demands, her anxiety. What is up with her?
Three simple sentences. Quite a bit of tension. How? The focus is on the character’s desire, which is used to set the thermostat: to create heat. Start your piece with a problem.
To establish the tension temperature, we need: a person; the person wanting something rather strongly; and finally, something keeping that person from getting what she wants.
In chart form, it looks like this:
The Four Elements of Tension
|1. PERSON: A person with a problem.||Be specific. Provide age, station in life, situation, location, cultural/social information.|
|2. DESIRE: The person wants something specific—has a strong desire.||What the person wants drives the entire passage. Ideally, the character/speaker has an external, physical desire that parallels or contrasts with an interior, psychological need.|
|3. STAKES: What the person wants is very important—it has to matter to her, greatly.||What is at stake for this person? What if she doesn’t get what she wants? How bad will it be? Whatever she wants, she needs to want it a lot, even (especially) if it is a little thing. If your character doesn’t care about what happens, the reader won’t either.|
|4. OBSTACLES: The person has to be thwarted by obstacles that keep her from getting what she wants. Obstacles can be opponents (another person or people interfering with the goal) or forces (grief, fear, weather, etc.). Obstacles need to be realistic and meaningful and have consequences.||When the person gets what she wants, the piece is over, the tension is resolved. During the piece, don’t let the character get what she wants and/or keep creating new needs, new wants. Your job as a writer is to move her closer to her need, and then either move her farther away or have the meeting of the need create a new desire.|
Find the four components of “setting the thermostat” in a section of Marisa Silver’s story “What I Saw from Where I Stood” (p. 251). What tension(s) are set in the section of the story? Use the chart above to create an analysis of the four elements of tension.
In Silver’s story, Dulcie wants to manage her fears. She wants to be happy again (interior psychological want). This is a high-value desire: She might ruin her relationships, asking too much of those who love her. She might never recover from grief. What she wants—the bad things to not have happened—is completely and utterly not-gettable. The force of despair is as strong as her desire to change her life situation.
Notice that in this short story, as in most, things start bad—fear of freeways—and the writer keeps giving more information that increases the tension. Moving in closely again on that excerpted passage, notice that in addition to the freeway fear, Dulcie holds her breath. The party is far away (higher stakes). Notice how Silver, the writer, is dialing up the tension one notch at a time, one sentence at a time.
Narrative poetry (poetry that tells a story, as opposed to lyric poetry, which expresses a single feeling or emotion) also uses the components of tension in order to set the thermostat and keep reader interest high.
Find Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” online and consider how he balances the forces of tension. Does he use all four components from the chart on page 227? Find words or phrases that support each component.
In Theodore Roethke’s famous poem “The Waking,” the battle is between the speaker and his question about his own life, his struggle to trust that his intuition, rather than his intellect, might take him where he needs to go. Life is a process, not a destination, he seems to say in this powerful poem. The speaker desires a meaningful life, and one that has room for questions and paradoxes; thus, “I wake to sleep” creates enormous tension. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear” reveals high stakes—not much is more important to us than fate—and strong desire—I want to live a certain way. Obstacles abound. What might seem clear and certain to others—l ight, nature, the ground, God, truth—for this speaker creates an opportunity to question, to pause. He preserves, against great odds, a dream-like state. Sleep—not knowing—reveals connection to intuition. Intuition will guide him. It’s slow living this way, worm-slow. But step-by-step, maintaining awareness in the face of tension—you get where you need to go.