Posts Tagged Hitchcock

The High Tension of Life

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.

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