Writers use tension to make their work more readable, and more meaningful, and more interesting. Writers hook a reader into a piece by paying attention to energy and images. To keep the reader engaged, delighted, and connected to your writing, manipulate the level of tension.
There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers. — H. L. MENCKEN
Tension is defined as trouble on the page. Tension is conflict; it’s a technique a writer uses to keep readers a bit off balance, making them guess, forcing them to wait, allowing them to worry, or to wonder, or to hope.
There is a lot of beautiful writing that simply does not hold the reader’s interest. Tension allows you to make sure everything you write has enough pull to keep your reader with you for the whole ride.
Read “Where There’s Smoke” by Jenifer Hixson (p. 162). This is a dramatic story. What techniques does Hixson use to increase the tension for the reader?
THE PRINCIPLES OF TENSION
Desire + Danger = Tension
To make sure your writing has enough tension to keep a reader engaged, focus on your character/speaker’s main desire: Keep every sentence, line, or stanza in the piece closely focused on what this person wants, and what forces are keeping her from getting it. Usually, the writer presents the desire both externally and internally. The character or speaker wants a ride to the concert, drugs for her sick child, or quieter kids. She must keep a secret that can’t be kept. Externally, we see her trying to get the thing she wants by her actions. Internally, her thoughts reveal the significance and the conflicts her desire holds. She hopes to meet her ex-boyfriend at the concert, she hopes her child will grow up to be a doctor, or she wants the children to spend more time with their father.
If there is no danger, if nothing bad will happen if she doesn’t get what she wants, you have no tension. If the kid just has a mild case of the sniffles, the reader is going to wonder why you are making him read about this kid. If meeting the ex-boyfriend doesn’t hold the promise of a life-altering interaction—she wants to go back to him and desert her husband (her desire + her danger)—why drag the reader along through a tedious explanation of who Ellen is, who Joey is, why set the scene in the restaurant, why bother at all?
When you combine desire (the thing a character or speaker wants—connection, money, to score points, to not be stupid) and danger (the potential harm that will come to the person—rejection, a scam, loss, shame), you automatically create tension.
Desire without danger is boring. Beautiful, perhaps. But boring.
Danger without an individual character’s strong, focused, clear desire is perhaps exciting, but only for a short time.
Consider these situations.
1. It’s the first day of the last semester of your college career. You are wait-listed for three classes: Math, Physics, and Biology. The registrar’s office: inconveniently closed the entire break. You need all three of these classes in order to graduate. On your schedule, you have one class only, Tennis, and you do not need this elective, not at all. You can’t afford a fifth year. When you arrive at the math and science building, there is a line of a hundred students, jamming the front doors, spilling out onto the lawn. Every single student has an add slip. Every student needs Math.
Desire to Graduate + Horrendous Drop/Add = Drama
A boy wakes up, wonders what he will do that day, eats a nice breakfast, strolls down the sidewalk to school. Gets there safely. Recess goes well.
No Desire (mild wish to get to school) + Safe Arrival = Boring
2. You are dating two people. Both of them live in the same building, Joey on the floor above you, Carlo just underneath you. They don’t know about each other. Both Joey and Carlo have declared themselves loyal to you, and you have promised each, in the heat of the moment, that he is The One. Every time you walk into that building, you feel it: tension. Tonight both Carlo and Joey meet you at the mailboxes. It’s clear they have been talking. Joey has a knife in his hand. Carlo is holding a letter, thwapping it against his flat palm.
Desire for Joey + Desire for Carlo + Assurances That Are Lies (“You are the only one”) + Human Propensity toward Jealousy, Violence = Drama Tension.
A man looks around his room, remembering all the pleasant moments of his life. The luxurious cars, the silk suits, the comfortable gardens. He realizes he has lived well. He has worked hard, and it has been worth it. He turns on the classical station, sits on a large leather sofa, stares out the window at a beautiful view. His nice wife brings him a gin and tonic. It tastes great.
Happy Man + All Desires Fulfilled = Boring
1. You work twenty-nine hours a week. You despise this job, which a small child could do. You are behind in all your classes. You have nineteen cents in checking, and your Visa is maxed out and two payments behind—the account was frozen this morning. You are driving home—speeding—to spend Friday evening with your mother, who has a bad heart; your girlfriend is pissed you’re missing her sorority social; you told her you bought her a corsage, and she can pick it up at the florists right about now, but your card was declined, of course—there is no corsage at Julie’s Flowers for her. You race home to your mother worrying about your midterm grades; you need a much higher GPA to compete for a good job upon graduation. The cops pull you over. Seventy-five in a thirty.
Desire to Be a Good Son and Boyfriend + No Money, Bad Grades, and Lack of Attention to Posted Speed Limits = Drama
It’s hard to create tension without focusing your reader’s attention on both a strong unmet desire and risk factors—the problems—that will affect you adversely.
Your obstacles—the risk factors—needn’t be murders, car chases, or battlefields. Often it is the subtle, tiny annoyances that actually create the most tension. The low-level constant needs children present, climaxing when they get tired, hungry, bored. The kind of day where you lose your keys, get a flat, are served with a speeding ticket, and your boss says, “No, you can’t have that extension on the Miller file.” It’s not life-or-death drama that truly feeds the pulse of tension.
Art disturbs, science reassures. — GEORGES BRAQUE
It’s the little stuff.
In this chapter, you’ll learn to practice paying attention to what increases tension. And you will learn a few tricks for avoiding the things that kill tension (explanation, clichés, generalizing, distance).
Setting the Thermostat: The Four Elements of Tension
Read the following example, and rate the tension level on a scale of 1 to 5:
I wake up when my alarm goes off and I get out of bed. It’s 7:47 a.m. I can’t believe I have to go to work. I get dressed, and drive—the traffic is terrible. I get out of my car and stand on the gravel. I see my aunt waiting for me. She is wearing tan clamdiggers and her black shirt complements her dark olive skin and her black hair. Her Teva-saddled feet are next to a white ball. Sneaky sees me, his stomach hanging down to his hind legs. When he reaches me I pick him up. Marilyn says hey I’m glad you made it. I’m just glad I am not too late.