Posts Tagged novel writing

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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Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research.  I worked with viruses most of my professional life.  Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels.  Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out.  New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.

But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently.  That is, my hobbies.  I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind.  I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.

I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were.  I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them.  And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space.  But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing.  There are actually a lot of similarities.  First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.

Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along.  I’ve done the second most of the time.  This is where the similarity to novel writing begins.  People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events.  They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype.  They use place names of real towns and geographic features.  And so on.  But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad.  We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation.  And that’s a lot like developing a novel.

A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world.  Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent.  It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees.  Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic.  It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on.  It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable.  So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel.  There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.

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