Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mounting Tension

Computer problems kept me from posting earlier in the week as I had planned. Can anybody direct me to the nearest MAC dealer. During the second hour of tech support, the technician said, "Talking to you reminds me of why I'll never go back to a PC." I'm glad I was able to inspire someone yesterday.

But back to creating tension in a work. As I said on Monday I was disappointed that the AFC Championship game didn't contain more tension. Someone pointed out the NFC was chock full. Maybe that was the NFL's way of making it up to disappointed viewers.

Tension: 1. the act of stretching, stretched tight. 2. intense nervous anxiety. 3. stress caused by pulling or stretching.

I posted earlier about creating tension to keep your readers turning pages. It is imperative that you create tension as quickly as possible in a story. You may argue that the first thing a writer needs to worry about is the characters. After all, without characters to root for, the reader isn't going to care about whatever fantastic plot you've cooked up.

Yes, your characters are important. This is absolutely true. Give me someone to root for. But if you don't put the character in a must-win situation from the word go the reader won't hang around long enough to get to know and care about the character.

The opening character can be as basic as a dog lost on the street. I don’t need to know where the dog came from, what breed he is, or how he ended up homeless and hungry. Without knowing anything about the dog besides he is in a dangerous situation, I automatically root for him. He's a helpless animal, for crying out loud. That situation begs for sympathy.

Sympathy in a character builds tension. Imagine the following possibilites: A woman waiting for her husband to get home from work. There's an unopened letter on the table. She keeps looking from the letter to the window. Tension from the word go. What is she afraid of? The contents of the letter? How the contents will grieve him? Or is there a secret inside that puts her very life in danger?

What about: a child dreading the receipt of a test.
Someone waiting for a returned phone call.
A frustrated driver in rush hour traffic.
A man in a van near a city park, his hands wrapped around the steering wheel and his eyes glued to a lone child on the swings.

Each situation breeds tension. Fear. Compassion. Sympathy.

Does your opening contain these elements? Like I wrote earlier, it doesn't take exploding cars or gunshots in the night or squealing brakes and the thud of a body hitting pavement to create tension, though those work well. Imagine again the skinny dog flinching at the noises of the city as he maneuvers between legs and moving cars. Endless possibilites or an opening a potential editor will easily set aside.

You decide.

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