As a huge Peyton Manning fan you can believe I was in front of the TV watching the match up between the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets yesterday afternoon. Part of me can’t help but root for the underdog so I almost wanted to see the Jets win the prize. The first half was a nail biter. Both teams played as if a championship was at stake. Oh, yeah, it sorta was.
But my interest soon waned as the wind went out of the Jets’ sails. Anyone could see this was the Colts’ game. As a writer it didn't take long to figure out why the AFC Championship game lost me as a viewer.
The death knell for any form of entertainment.
The Colts pulled ahead in the second half; the lead widened and the Jets began to play like a defeated team. When the Colts intercepted the ball just before the two-minute warning I was actually disappointed, even though it was the outcome I had hoped for.
In fiction, I know a few pages into a book how I want it to end. I already know my heroine is probably going to outsmart the bad guy. She’ll return the lost puppy to its master. She’ll reconcile with her mother. She’ll win the chili cook-off, save her sister’s marriage, rescue the children from the bottom of the deserted mine shaft, lose that last fifteen pounds, and of course, capture the heart of our dashing hero.
The trick for the writer is to make all those things happen---to give the reader the story they want, the outcome they expect, the champion they’re rooting for, without turning it into a runaway game that makes them turn the channel. The key to doing this is tension.
Tension: 1. the act of stretching, stretched tight. 2. intense nervous anxiety. 3. stress caused by pulling or stretching.
Readers hate this in real life, but you better give it to them in their reading material. Sol Stein in Stein on Writing says conflict is the ingredient that makes action dramatic. If you don’t quickly arouse the reader’s curiosity they will stop reading and close the book. You must arouse that curiosity and keep it aroused as long as possible.
Readers want to be taken to the edge of their seat once in a while, even though they expect a certain ending when they start reading. During the game yesterday, I got just what I expected...and it was boring. While still wanting the Colts to win, I would've preferred a little back and forth, a contest, some tense moments where it looked like the Jets might actually pull it out.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, look at your project this week. Determine that you are giving readers what they expect, but not it the way they expect. Try something new. Turn everything upside down and shake it out. Ask yourself: Is this going to deliver the right results, but in a new and unexpected way?
While you want to write a runaway bestseller, you don't want to turn it into a runaway ballgame that has everyone leaving early to beat traffic.