Sunday, October 07, 2012

Creating Tension

Fans of Printz Honor Award winner and National Book Award finalist Chris Lynch (Kill Switch, Freewill, Inexcusable, Pieces, Angry Young Man, Gold Dust, and Iceman), will be happy to hear he's writing a new middle-grade, historical fiction series that’s loaded with tension.

Set in Vietnam, the series tells the individual stories of four guys—Morris, Rudi, Ivan, and Beck—who swear they are best friends for life. When Rudi receives his draft notice, his buddies vow to stay together and sign up to serve, too, each in a different branch of the US military.

In Vietnam: I Pledge Allegiance, the first book of the series, Morris signs up with the US Navy—the best place, he thinks, to watch over his friends—and initially is stationed on the USS Boston off the coast of Vietnam, providing support for his buddies and the troops on the ground.

But then, with the tension already high after attacks on his ship, Morris finds himself reassigned: 
For only the second time in about a hundred years, the US Navy has divided itself in two. My life on the USS Boston, floating off the coast and on the ocean, was part of the Blue Water Navy. What a lot of people would call the easy war. 
From now on, that won’t be the case at all. I am now part of the Brown Water Navy, where life is a whole lot more complicated. 
What do you notice about these two paragraphs? How does Lynch suggest danger? How does he raise the stakes of the story?

Now here’s Lynch building tension as his main character settles into his new home: 
There is a lot of jungle in Vietnam. There is a lot of jungle. And it is cut up, north-south, east-west, and every possible combination of all that, with rivers. Thousands of miles of rivers. If you are going to move effectively around here, if you are going to find the enemy, engage the enemy, deliver troops, equip them, move them from place to place, and above all cover them with the Navy’s special brand of protection, you are simply going to have to use a good bit of boat power to do it.
And where that jungle and those waterways come right up close and personal to each other? Well, that is about the most dangerous place on planet Earth.
Welcome to my new home. Welcome to the Mekong Delta. 
Again, notice the tactics that Lynch employs to build the tension. Not just jungle but a lot of jungle. And thousands of miles of rivers, size clearly indicating more opportunities for danger to strike.

It’s not just a question of finding the enemy, is it? No, it’s a question of finding the enemy, engaging the enemy, delivering troops with equipment, moving everyone and everything from place to place, with the implication that each task exposes US forces to greater risk, and at the end of the long list of necessary actions will be a fight. The Navy’s job in such a situation will be to protect the fighters. And the outcome of all these preparations? Lynch has planted a seed in the reader's mind: expect trouble.

Here Lynch continues to raise the stakes, building a heightened sense of tension: 
We’re cruising south down the Mekong, returning from dropping a load of Army troops off about halfway to the Cambodian border. Cruising back down should be the simple part, but nothing is simple in this brown water. We can go days without seeing anything hostile on the banks, but that by no means indicates that hostility isn’t hiding in there. Facing the Vietcong sprinkled throughout the heavy foliage of the southern riverways or in the hills beyond is a much more dicey and uncertain thing than taking on the regular army of the North. 
It starts with just one shot bouncing off of plate metal. Then two and three and six, like popcorn starting up. 
Notice how Lynch builds toward danger, lulling the reader into a false sense of security with the opening sentence (“cruising”), but note the hint of danger (“nothing is simple in this brown water.”). Onward Lynch leads the reader into uncertainty until the moment when Morris hears—and the reader hears it at the same time—the first sound of trouble: Ping!

And then the trouble is defined. It starts with just one shot. Then it multiplies: two and three and six, like popcorn starting up.

And then, after building to the climax, Lynch takes his reader down the other side and offers this, the aftermath: 
There’s one last, loud salvo from shore, then Everett throws an arm around my neck as the captain powers up the monitor to head upstream. The air is filled with sulfur, smoke, and sunset. Everything around us is burning.
The brown water is like gravy, bubbling in our wake. To make us more nimble on shallow water, we have light, crisp armor plating and jets instead of propellers pushing us on.
My heart has never pounded like this. I take a moment to watch all thirty-two inches of my sweaty chest puff crazy like a hummingbird. Then I look back out at the water, the banks, the low sky ceiling. There is something beautiful there, in the smoking murky scene we’re fleeing.
“Wow,” I say to Everett. “Who did we shoot?”
“Who knows?” He laughs weakly. “We got ‘em all, though, whoever they were.”
There’s something wrong. I look down at where Everett’s arm is draped over and down my chest. There’s blood. His blood. 
Again Lynch lures his reader into the scene with a false sense of security—the "last" salvo—and the afterglow tension of the battle (even going so far as to note a kind of beauty in the battle’s aftermath) before pushing the pedal to the metal again and increasing the tension: “There’s something wrong.”

What could be wrong? 

There’s blood. His blood.

And you can bet there's more tension to come.

If you want to learn how to create tension in your work, read the books that make up Lynch’s newest series set in Vietnam:

And for more information on how to create tension in your work, visit:


Jack said...

Another good article by Wordswimmer, offering good reflections on raising tension in fiction. Good to get updated on Chris' work; I'll definitely check in on his Vietnam series.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Jack. He's got another new book out, Kill Switch, which you might check out, too.