Thermostat Control: Adjusting the Temperature
The secret to creating tension, in life and on the page, is to vary the situation. Ups and downs are much harder for us (and therefore much more successful in literature) than a steadily awful time. If things go from bad to worse, we can usually adapt. What drives us to the brink of madness is when the situation is bad (the line for Math Add is terrifically long), but it improves (Joe lets us cut ahead of him in line), and then gets worse (the Drop/Add people are leaving for lunch just when you get to the front of the line), and then much worse (your two boyfriends show up at the Drop/Add counter to confront you, loudly).
And then better.
In real life it’s called “being jerked around.”
Tension is ups and downs, back and forth, tension and the release of tension. This up-and-down is the rhythm of creative writing. Change appeals to our basic need for stimulation. Don’t let your reader adapt. Once he gets the emotional tenor of one line, you have to change it up again. Be thoughtfully unpredictable. Don’t let your piece remain at the same tension level for long.
Reread the poem “Buying Wine” by Sebastian Matthews (p. 70). Notice the tension level in the first stanza. A choice is always imbued with some tension; here the choice is backseat or Wine Mart. Each one has pluses and minuses. Somewhat arbitrarily, we could assign a number to that level of tension, on a scale of 1 to 5. Let’s say it’s a 2. Because the speaker in the poem is a child, either choice is at least a little scary.
In the second stanza, the tension goes down—the boy is in the store, trailing Dad, and things look good, orderly, even familiar, “like bat racks.” The tension is perhaps a 1. But not for long. In stanza 3, the cart is “ever-filling”—and this is not good and it’s getting worse because the father is “unkempt” and pretty much flinging liquor into the cart in the aisle. Tension in stanzas 3 through 5 could be said to dial up quickly; 2, 3, then 4. In stanza 5, Matthews ratchets the tension meter back down—the speaker, a child, sees his father shopping here as he shops at the meat store. Things are okay, aren’t they? We’re just shopping for food. It’s good to match wines and food, put a pinot grigio with scallops … right? The tension dances down to near 1.
Notice the leap that occurs between stanzas 7 and 8. While the boy is adjusting to his father’s wine-shopping ritual, he slips into a reverie, remembering other wine store trips where he made the other choice and stayed in the car. Whenever a writer switches locations, pops into a flashback, moving back in time and space, the reader experiences a tension shift. “Often, we’d stay in the car” moves the tension from 1 back up to 2 or 3, and then in the second line of stanza 8—notice the tension shift in that “dwindling capacity to believe our father” comment. Boom. This isn’t a kid who still worships his dad. This is a kid who has been disappointed by this dad many, many times. That statement charges the poem with energy, intensity.
That intensity is increased—to a 5, perhaps, on the tension meter—in the next stanza, where the kids in the backseat are imagined as free from the car, roaming. Unsupervised offspring of an alcoholic father, “like horses” for a moment, and anything could happen. Lots of tension here. Which drops back down when the boys are, sadly, drawn to the liquor store window, to peek in, glimpse “snippets of [the] father’s profile.” They want to be like him. They want to be with him. They want to be free. The tensions in the poem are further dialed up a notch in the line when he disappears “behind the tall cardboard stacks” as if he’s being swallowed up by liquor, which, in fact, he is.
Map of tension in Sebastian Matthews’s poem “Buying Wine” ( p. 70 ). Tension level ranges from 1 to 5. The arrows represent the direction of the tension; the length of the arrows indicates how much the tension increases or decreases.
When the kid loads up his own cart in stanza 12, do you see that as more or less drastic than the preceding stanza? Some readers will say it’s just as tense: a 4 or a 5. Because the boy is hurt so deeply in the preceding stanza, seeing his dad disappear, other readers will see this stanza as less tense—a kid acting like a kid. Readers will react differently; what’s important for you as the writer is to keep changingthe intensity.
When the speaker is dreaming of parties, some readers may feel this is the most tense part of the poem because it’s so easy to imagine the speaker going down a bad path. Others will believe that the final image, of the father holding “wine bottles like babies in his hands,” creates the deepest emotional impact of the entire poem, as we see the father being more careful with the wine than with his real children.
Remember: If everything is at the same high level of excitement, your reader will grow just as bored as if there were no tension at all. Scientists and psychologists have shown definitively that the human mind adjusts quickly; it is designed to adapt. It’s part of the human genius. We get used to things very, very quickly—loud background noise disappears, our surroundings homogenize, we don’t notice changes in family members we see every day. Give us a bad situation, and it’s human nature to adapt. Just when the room is getting too hot, turn down the thermostat; make the reader cool off. Then, just as the reader is cooling, crank the heat back up. That’s the oppositional nature of this strategy: When things get bad, they have to get worse. When they get worse, they then have to get better.
As you practice, you will find more ways to intensify and manipulate the temperature. The chart on page 236 lists various elements of a piece of writing, presenting ways for adjusting the thermostat and modulating tension.
Read the poem “Hustle” by Jericho Brown (p. 112), written in a form called ghazal. Read the poem aloud and again silently. The title offers a key to understanding how the seemingly unrelated couplets connect: “Hustle” has several meanings; one is to treat someone roughly. In a ghazal, each couplet introduces a different aspect of the main topic. In the first couplet (a couplet is a two-line stanza), we read a mysterious set of lines about being in prison. We may need to look up the reference to Dwayne Betts. (At sixteen, Betts, a stellar student, made some very poor decisions, committed a crime, was tried as an adult, and spent eight years in prison. He’s now a professor, poet, and memoirist.) Brown’s poem continues to ask us to look up things we do not know, to read on for more information. In this way, he creates tension for the reader—an insistent need to know more. Who are these people? How do these things relate to each other? Alice Walker’s famous novel is referenced, as are other accounts of violence and injustice. Brown insists the reader put the story together on his or her own. He wants the reader to feel tension: That’s part of his point.
In a ghazal, the couplets aren’t supposed to connect directly. The poem is actually thirteen two-line minipoems. For some readers, this is simply too much tension. But for patient readers, the rewards are great. The point here is this: Practice adjusting the thermostat, moving from high-tension moments to simple moments, intense heat to calm peace. Thermostat control gives you power over your reader.