A couple of months ago (on May 7, 2017, to be exact) I posted a blog entry about what I called “The High Tension Of Life.” In this post I suggested that an author should write his/her fictitious stories so that the protagonist isn’t subjected to a high level of tension or conflict entirely through the story. A story like that is difficult to read, and it’s grossly unrealistic as well. I gave an example of a book (which I deliberately kept unnamed) in which the author did just that, and I hated it. I strongly suggest it not be done. Keep the tension or conflict rising and falling, like the waves on the ocean, so that the reader as well as the character won’t be exposed to tremendous emotional stress for the entire book.
But in order to do that, a writer has to know the difference between tension and conflict in the first place. They’re both similar and I’m sure most people understand that. But what, then, is the difference? As a start, I looked them up in a dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. (I used a couple of other dictionaries too, but they weren’t as helpful.) In their simplified form, and most significant for a writer, both have to do with opposition, and the hostility or antagonism that can arise between two people, or between a person and some other external force. Tension most frequently is thought of as being internal, and not always obvious to others, as for example, a person who works two jobs and worries about feeding his/her family, but that’s not always the case. Conflict is so often external, like between two people. Or, for example, as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, between a person and his/her environment. Webster’s even acknowledges the use of the term in writing, defining conflict in part as “opposition of forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.”
But those are oversimplifications of the definition of the two words. Tension can be outward, conflict can be internal. Tension is a force that puts a person or a fictional character in stress; conflict is the opposition between two characters or forces. Tension is a descriptive word alluding to the stress that a person feels in a difficult situation; conflict comes from opposition—just plain, unadulterated hostility. Opposition can produce tension, too. A fight between a married couple is conflict, but it can induce tension in both, and even within the children who overhear.
As Webster’s noted, conflict is essential to dramatic action—it’s what keeps the story moving. The usual literary dogma is “you must have conflict on every page,” although that sounds like one of those “unalterable” rules of writing that gets passed around to every new writer, and which the passer and the “passee” take for granted without stopping to examine in any real detail. I’m not sure you have to have conflict on every page, though you’re going to need it on most (>90%) pages. What may be more important, though, is the underlying tension that pervades a story. Tension—low, slow and in some case almost undetectable—will have to come from the situation your characters find themselves in. One of my favorite books in recent years is Connie Willis’s two volume set, Blackout and All Clear. (She originally wrote them as a single volume, but it was so big her publisher made her split it into two.) The story is set in London during the Battle of Britain, specifically during the “Blitz,” when Germany bombed the city almost every night. The major conflict is between England and Germany, of course, though there’s conflict between most of the characters too. But every evening, the city evacuates into the subway tunnels to ride out the bombing, and this underlying tension affects everyone. There may not be any actual conflict between those present in any given subway station, but the tension of the situation is present all the time. It pervades the story constantly, and from the tension conflict arises. Even during the day, as the residents of London go about their daily lives, they know that they will have to find a safe spot on a subway platform near sundown. How would you like to live under those conditions?
Tension can be thought of as a “low level of conflict,” and to a great extent that’s true. But there’s a difference, and a writer needs to understand that difference in order to produce an excitingly readable work. Raymond Chandler is reported to have said, “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” That would certainly raise the tension.
I’ve written occasionally on this blog about facts and figures I find it hard to conceive of, to imagine, or in today’s vernacular, to wrap my mind around. Some things are just so immense or so tiny or so hot that I can’t see them in my mind’s eye without some sort of cognitive dissonance that makes it impossible to imagine. Like fingernails on a blackboard during a performance of Debussy’s “La Mer.” Here’s another: I’ve heard there are five million cubic miles of ice on the Earth, mostly in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It of course varies from season to season, swelling in the winter and melting in the summer, though the Antarctic ice doesn’t change as much as Arctic. Yet I find that hard to imagine on any reasonable scale.
What makes that number so important nowadays is, as most are now aware, that ice is melting, and each year the Arctic ice in the summer retreats farther and farther away from land, and that just adds to the water in the ocean. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have to reach approximately 500 to 800 parts per million (ppm) before all that ice will be melted, and that probably won’t happen for several hundred, or even a thousand years. And all that melting will cause a sea level rise of 216 feet overall. That’s not a huge number—it’s about the height of a 22-story building—but the effects over the face of the Earth will be so big that it has become another immense thing I have trouble conceiving. (I hope by the time that happens the US will have converted to the metric system completely; 216 feet is 65.8 meters.) New York City will be almost completely inundated; the Mississippi river will be flooded well inland; Florida and New Orleans will all but disappear—I’m sure you can visualize for yourself the idea. I live in Albuquerque. At five thousand feet above mean sea level, this city will be relative immune to the sea level rise. However, we won’t be immune to the effects in other ways: population migration, loss of habitat, loss of shipping ports, loss of arable land, and so on. I’m not the one to try to estimate the overall effects, that’s for the experts who have access to all the data and computers which can crunch all the data, but I’m sure those effects will be devastating. A lot worse than no more Walt Disney World.
What is it we are actually doing by being creative? That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity? As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science. Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them. The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity? Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go? What do we get out of it? (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with. You can probably think of others. But my comments here will apply to all.)
My first answer is two-fold. First, scientific experiments are done to gather information. Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever. Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important. Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment. A good story is worth a thousand words. A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character. Always fun.
But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach. Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper. They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms. Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on. They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.
Likewise with a novel or a short story. A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth. But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc. Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together. Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information. Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.
Back in February, 2017, an interesting article appeared in that month’s issue of Scientific American. Written by Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb, the authors presented some evidence for a “big bounce” in the life of our universe, rather than the much better known “big bang.” The universe as we know it is thought to have started by a rapid inflation of all matter and energy from a point so small it would fit inside an electron with room to spare. Thus the idea of the “big bang” was born, though it was probably a quiet “bang” since there wouldn’t have been any air around to transmit a sound. The authors of the article give some evidence (not overwhelming by any stretch of imagination) that the universe has been alternately expanding from a point, then contracting to another point and expanding again. Ad infinitum.
Well, later several other physicists, thirty-three to be exact, including Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth (who, by the way is the pioneer of the inflation theory) wrote a letter stating their opposition to the evidence in the article, and reaffirming their belief that the universe started with one and only one big bang. Their evidence is that the universe is not only expanding, but is expanding at an ever increasing rate, and either already has or soon will reach a “point of no return” where it can only continue to expand, and never will contract. Too much dark energy pushing the matter in the universe apart. It’ll go on forever.
Two competing theories. I emphasize that the Scientific American article did not state that the authors thought the Big Bang theory was wrong, just that they thought it did not explain everything, and a rebounding universe was a possibility. Okay, so much for that.
My interest in this discussion between the “Uni”-verse theory and the “Multi”-verse theory isn’t to try and distinguish between them, or even try to add my name to one or the other. I’m not a physicist and haven’t got the faintest idea which is correct. I’ll let those more competent than I figure that out. But as I began to think about the concept of a rebounding universe, my thoughts took a philosophical turn, and I began to wonder where we all fit in such a scenario. The universe expands from a point source and grows larger and larger, to eventually result in our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our cities and towns, and us. It goes on for billions of more years, and reaches a tipping point. It begins to contract and drops back to a point, and the cycle starts all over again. All of that is conceivable by the human mind. But what isn’t conceivable is the idea that this has been going on forever, and will go on into infinity. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog called “Wrap Your Mind Around This…” in which I pointed out a few examples of things that are so out of the ordinary in today’s world that they were impossible for the human mind to comprehend. This rebounding universe is another. (See the earlier blog at https://rogerfloyd.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/wrap-your-mind-around-this/) Although I can see a universe that starts with an inflation and continues on only to dissipate into infinity, I can’t begin to envision a universe that bounds and rebounds, like a tennis ball that will not stop bouncing. Such a universe violates the laws of physics. The most difficult part to envision is that there has never been a beginning, and there will never be an end. How does something never have a beginning?
I wonder, does the universe play the same thing over and over with each rebound? Did we exist in all those past universes? Or, is each universe different?
The universe in which we currently exist is so large, we are almost infinitely tiny in comparison. Our galaxy, which is so much larger than us, is itself only one of billions, even, perhaps, trillions. But to put all that in the context of a universe that rises and falls like a bouncing ball, and has been going on forever—no beginning, no end—just makes the comparison even more difficult to understand.
Over the past few weeks or so, I’ve noticed on Facebook several posts about how climate change has caused warming in the northern parts of the Earth, especially in northern Canada and Siberia. The posts give information about how carcasses of dead animals (and, possibly, humans) are being exposed for the first time in ten, twenty, thirty, or forty thousand years (or even more) because the permafrost in that area is melting. Potentially, many of those animals or humans died of infectious diseases such as anthrax, plague, or other highly communicable diseases, and the threat to us humans today is that a new outbreak could be started if we exhume the bodies without taking careful precautions to prevent spread. They even give an example of an anthrax outbreak in Russia when an infected animal carcass was exhumed. I fully agree.
I have two real comments to make about these stories. Both points are short and simple, because I don’t have the space here to go into any detail about how to handle the exposed carcasses. I’m not an expert in that, and there’s a lot of boring detail I’d have to list anyway. My first point is that these stories are calling the agents that cause the diseases that could be exposed as being caused by “viruses,” even though the all the ones they list are actually caused by bacteria. Viruses are not “bacteria.” Viruses are submicroscopic organisms that cause disease, while bacteria are larger, and can be seen in a microscope. I hope we will begin to use the two terms properly in order to avoid any confusion in the future.
Having said that, there are possible situations where real viruses might be uncovered by permafrost thawing (“permathawing”?) I can conceive that sometime a carcass of a human who died of a virus disease (such as smallpox, influenza, polio, rabies, ebola, etc.) might be uncovered. These are real viruses, not the “viruses” listed by the writers of the articles mentioned above. Some of these might be dangerous. But there’s a caveat, and this leads to the second point I want to make.
Viruses, on the whole, are easier to kill than bacteria. It is true that both viruses and bacteria can be preserved for a long time by freezing. A dead body, whether animal or human, which is frozen soon after death to a temperature well below zero (and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Fahrenheit or centigrade here; cold is cold) can preserve any infectious agent reasonably well. But the agent will begin to die off as time goes by. Bacteria will generally be preserved longer. Viruses I suspect would become inactivated more easily. But there are so many variables—how soon after death the body was frozen, how deep in the frost it was, what the temperature was throughout the frozen state, how long ago it died—that I can’t even begin to make generalizations. For some viruses, like influenza, for example, I suspect that if a prehistoric human who died of a strain of flu as potent as the 1918 strain were exhumed, it might not be too infectious, since the flu virus can be destroyed relatively easily. But I can’t be sure. There is one virus I would be very suspicious of, were a human carcass infected with it were to be uncovered, and that is smallpox. In lab studies, smallpox is more difficult to kill than most other viruses, and this could raise some serious issues. The problem is made worse by the fact that we don’t immunize people against smallpox any more, and that means that any researchers under the age of about thirty or forty who might be working with recovered human remains from permathawing could be at risk for the disease. Perhaps this is a good reason to bring back smallpox immunization, at least for people working in this area, if not the population at large.
In summary, let’s start using the terms “bacteria” and “viruses” correctly to avoid confusion in the future, and let’s be careful exhuming any dead carcass, human or animal. Diseases have killed animals probably for as long as animals have existed, and those nasty “viruses,” potentially at least, could come back and do it again. We might even uncover a virus we’ve never seen before.
In this blog post I want to talk a little about putting tension and conflict into story telling. I’ve just completed reading two science fiction novels (written by the same author) in which I believe the concept of tension was handled badly. I’m not identifying the novels or the author for two reasons. One, this is not a book review, and two, I’m not trying to cut down or disparage the books (you may actually like them); I’m only trying to make a point. The problem with the books as I see them is that the author placed both protagonists in a state of high tension and internal conflict, and kept the unfortunate person in that state for virtually the entire book. I found this situation almost unreadable. Trying to read through this, page after page, chapter after chapter, was emotionally taxing on me as well. Many times I wanted to toss the books away and not finish them. (I did finish them, however, because I figured if I wanted to critique them, I’d better read the entire book.) In short, that’s a terrible thing to do to your protagonist as well as to your reader.
Placing a novel character in such a state is so grossly unrealistic and unbelievable I find myself wondering how it got past the agency and the editor in the first place. I’m surprised someone didn’t stop it before publication, or at least question it. I certainly would never put one of my characters in such a desperate situation. I might put them in that plight for a chapter or two, or three, but not for the whole book. Tension and conflict are essential in a novel, of that there is no doubt, and it may be true that I don’t have enough of either in my books. But tension and conflict should rise and fall like the tides. Keeping a character in eternal tension is unrealistic, and even science fiction has to be “realistic,” at least to a certain degree. Raise the tension occasionally; keep your characters sane (unless insanity is a part of the story). If this is what it takes to get published in this day and age, I don’t want to have any part of it.
As a good example of the variation of tension, I offer the Alfred Hitchcock movie “To Catch A Thief.” Not because it’s such a great example, but merely because I watched portions of it last night. In the movie, a cat burglar has been retired for fifteen years, but now a copycat has started burglarizing the homes of the wealthy, and the retired burglar has to clear his name and prove to the police the break-ins weren’t his doing, or go to jail. In his words “they’ll throw away the key.” (Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t above using a cliché.) High stakes, no doubt. But Hitchcock intersperses humor and lightheartedness throughout the movie, even though it takes the main character most of the movie to identify the real burglar. I think that’s one thing that makes Hitchcock such a movie favorite; he knew how to handle tension.
As an unpublished author, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe lack of conflict and tension are my problem. But I do know what I felt when I read the books, and I didn’t like it at all. And that’s enough for me.
I’ve just finished a serious and rather lengthy revision of my first novel, a science fiction work of—in its final form—about 124,000 words. This revision was prompted by reading about and talking to people about that nemesis of novel writers, the dreaded backstory. You’ve got too much backstory in your novel, some people will say, many times without even reading your novel. They may or may not be correct in every case, but I decided to take a long hard look at my first novel and try to do something about the backstory. Was it too much? Not enough? Or just right? I decided it was too much. Not just too much, but way too much, and most of it had to go. I had whole chapters (four of them to be exact) consisting of nothing but backstory. Those chapters interrupted the flow of the narrative, and while they added some substantial information to the reader’s knowledge of the past history of the two main characters, they were basically wordy descriptions of nothing (or very little) that the reader actually needed to know. So, out they came, all except one, and that one does reveal some vitally important information about one character’s early life. Some important details about backstory from the material cut out I did manage to work into the narrative in little spots here and there, and I think the story is much better for it.
In cutting out the backstory so drastically, I reduced the word count from 127,000 to 122,000. But there was a further change I needed to make. Several years ago I pitched the novel to a New York literary agent, and she asked to see the whole manuscript. Even though she eventually decided not to represent the novel, she made one comment that, at the time, left me somewhat confused. She said she would have liked to know more about what was going on in the main character’s head. To know what the main character was thinking. At the time I didn’t know how to take that, because I thought I’d put enough in about what the main character was thinking, and I didn’t want to add more because the novel was too long as it was. But now that I had removed so much backstory, I decided to revisit the agent’s advice and see what I could do. So now the novel has grown from 122,000 to around 124,500. Still leaner than before, although still rather large for a novel. But I think much better overall. Is this the final revision I need to make? Stay tuned.
I will be attending the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in late April this year, and will be pitching to an editor representing a well-known sci-fi publisher. Perhaps this year will be the one. Maybe he’ll like the new version.
Why don’t you check your novel? You’ve probably got too much backstory in it.