Posts Tagged tension
I suspect most people in the United States are familiar with the Christmas Carol “Jingle Bells.” In fact, it, no doubt, is one of the most familiar carols ever in the US. One particular verse, actually the second, caught my ear many years ago, but just recently I realized how well and how intricately that verse had been put together. There are a few lessons we writers can learn from that verse. First a little background on the carol.
“Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 by James S. Pierpont for a school choir to sing on Thanksgiving, not Christmas. (As far as I’m aware, he wrote both words and music.) He originally entitled it “One Horse Open Sleigh,” words we’re familiar with from the first verse, though nowadays we call it by the first words of the refrain, “Jingle Bells.” Mr. Pierpont actually penned several verses, most of which are not sung anymore. The modern tendency is to sing only the first verse and refrain, though sometimes the second verse is added. It’s that second verse I want to concentrate on. Here it is:
“A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated at my side.
The horse was lean and lank,
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And then we got upsot.”
This verse is interesting because it tells a very short story which is (almost) complete within itself. No words are wasted. An interesting historical context—and I’m speaking entirely within the verse, having nothing to do with any of the details of “Jingle Bells,” or the other verses—is presented in the first line, “A day or two ago.” It sets the time factor—relatively, if not absolutely—right up at the front. It, and the second line about taking a ride, get us directly into the action without unnecessary words. At this point, we are aware from the first verse “Dashing through the snow,” that we are in winter, and riding in a “one-horse open sleigh.” That’s not given in the second verse, one point of critique.
The narrator is not named in this little story, but one other character is named, so we do have a character we can relate to. I suspect that most people assume the narrator is male, and the name “Fanny” certainly suggests the rider is female. At this point, we can visualize the two of them riding in a one-horse sleigh down a snowy road with bells attached to the bobbed tail of the horse. All seems well. A nice outing on a cold winter’s day. Can’t you just feel the wind on your face?
But the plot thickens, and the author introduces the required tension that holds the story together. Got to have conflict or at least tension in a story. The characters have to be in danger. Something has to happen. Otherwise, the story line falls apart, and all we have is a simple account of the incident. We’re given a good description of the horse, that it is “lean and lank,” enough to allow us to visualize the animal in our mind’s eye, but no more than necessary. It wouldn’t add any thing to the story to know what color the horse was, or its age, or gender, or whatnot.
Then we learn “Misfortune was his lot.” Now, like in any well-constructed story, we’re given a hint at the eventual climax, but just a hint: “Misfortune seemed his lot.” So tantalizing. A horse with a tendency to having bad luck. Something’s going to happen. But what? Like any well-constructed story, every word, every line, every sentence, is necessary to the plot. If it’s there, it must be essential. We dread to know. What will it be?
Finally the climax, “We got into a drifted bank” and “got upsot.” (An old term for “upset.” Fell over.) That’s the end of it. That’s all we need to know. The story is done, the end is clear. Whether the characters (including the horse) were injured is not known, and really, that information isn’t necessary. The story ends at the end of the action, and no further words are necessary. The author left it alone. Do the same with your stories.
During the past year (2017) I published on this blog two entries about tension and conflict in writing. If you’re a writer at almost any phase of your career, you’ve certainly heard of the dictum—in fact, almost a rule of law—that you have to have tension and/or conflict on every page of your creative writing story. Nothing less will do. It’s a rule I subscribe to, though I’ve also said that one or two pages without tension or conflict probably wouldn’t hurt. But I’ve begun to realize in the past few months that that piece of advice is based on flawed logic, and I would like to correct that error here. Or at least try to.
The reason I say that advice was in error is that I’ve come to realize that there are really two types of tension/conflict, and both are important in writing fiction or creative non-fiction. I’m not talking about the difference between tension on the one hand, and conflict on the other (see my blog entry of 7/16/2017 where I describe the difference), but about two different forms that the combined tension/conflict duo can take. The first form is the general background tension/conflict that pervades a story all the way through (or at least most of the way). This is the kind of tension that simmers away almost unnoticed, that the characters are always certainly aware of, but only if they stop to think about it and acknowledge it. An example might be a story about life in a submarine during World War II. (Or perhaps in a spaceship cruising the galaxy looking for “bad guy” spaceships to destroy with photon torpedoes.) Going down to three or four or five hundred feet below the surface of the ocean in a submarine is bad enough, but with the constant threat of depth charges raining down on the sub just elevates the tension level to a point where everybody is constantly aware of it. It’s in the background, it affects everyday life on board that sub, though the crew may not always be aware of it. Every crew member has his/her duty and carries it out. This is the type of tension that must be present on every page; it’s a constant reminder of the basic plot line of the story. Once the submarine returns to its home port, Pearl Harbor say, and every one relaxes on Waikiki Beach, the background tension is gone, and the story collapses. There’s nothing to hold it together. A story about sailors relaxing on a beach doesn’t hold much interest unless there’s some other background conflict.
But superimposed over that background tension/conflict is the more prominent one. This is a more immediate one. This is the tension of now, the tension of events taking place over and above the background. In that submarine, this might be the tension of a fight between two members of the crew, a fight that boils over from conflict between them that’s been simmering for days or weeks or months, dating back to well before they boarded the sub for their latest tour of duty. Or, it might be the tension of getting ready to fire torpedoes, with the ultimate realization that could bring down those dreaded depth charges and blow their nice warm submarine out of the water. This is the kind of tension/conflict that comes and goes, and isn’t necessarily present on every page. It rises and falls; it ebbs and flows, and an author can’t expect his/her characters to live under this type of stress and strain for a long time. They have to have some respite. But it is essential for the story, it provides a series of events that carry the reader along and allows him or her to see the inner workings of the main characters. It provides a look—maybe not much more than a glimpse—into their minds, into how they handle themselves in difficult situations, into what makes them tick. It gives the reader a look at the real person your character is, not the veneer they show to the world. Tap into this tension, but don’t overdo it—your writing will be better for it.
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.
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.