Sunday, March 12, 2017

Notes on Tension

Some stories have tension, some don't, and the question that I'd like to pose here is this: how do you create tension so it's strong enough in your story to compel readers to keep turning the pages?

Where does tension come from? What's the source of tension?

Let's look at the opening of Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw to determine how Coman introduced tension in the first paragraph of her story:
When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved. That very night--or was it early morning?--some time of day or night that felt like it had no hour at all, Jamie and his mother and Nin left the house where they'd been living with Van--Van's house--and they drove to Earl's apartment above Daggert's Sand 'n Gravel in Stark, New Hampshire, and from there they went on to the trailer. 

What's the source of tension here?

First, it's multi-layered, isn't it? It comes not only from the fear the reader feels when reading these words--fear that a vulnerable baby is being thrown--but also from the uncertainty of whether Jamie and his family can find a safe place away from danger.

But there's another source of tension, too, and I think it comes from the reader's concern for Jamie and how what he has just seen may injure him emotionally and psychologically.

To create the tension, Coman needed to do something that I find difficult to do as a writer. She needed to place one of the characters--a baby, an innocent baby--in danger,

And then she increased the tension by sharing the scene with the reader through the eyes of a third-grade boy, who might very well find himself in a similar position of danger if left alone with Van.

She also needed to create a villain, an antagonist, with such a strong streak of meanness that the reader is able to feel the same fear as the characters in the story.

So, we're given a tense moment, filled with tension, to begin the story, and it's nearly impossible to keep from turning the page to see what happens next. That is, can Jamie and the family find a place of safety to escape from the danger that Van presents in their lives?

Starting your story with a tense scene like this is one way to draw your reader into your story. But if you want to keep the reader turning pages, you'll need to offer tension in a rising ebb and flow throughout the story, as well.

In Graham Salisbury's Under the Blood Red Sun, you can find tense scenes throughout the coming-of-age story set in Hawaii when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Here's a scene at the beginning of Chapter 12, halfway through the story:
     Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! "Open up in there!" Bam! Bam! Bam!
     The screen door rattled like it would fall off. I bolted up with a pounding heart, staring at the dark shadow of a man in the doorframe.
     "Whatchoo want?" I heard Grampa say. He was coming out of the kitchen. Mama following him.
     "Taro Nakaji... Does he live here?"
     Six thirty. Dark, wet morning. I staggered up as Grampa opened the door. "Please... come inside," Mama said, bowing in the Japanese way.
     "Taro Nakaji," the man said without coming into the house. He was tall. A khaki uniform showed under his rainslicker. Army. A pistol was strapped to his belt. Two policemen in olive-brown uniforms, also wearing slickers, stood behind him on the porch. One of them was looking around the yard. A Hawaiian guy. Gray clouds moved in the sky beyond, the wind pushing them toward the sea.
     "He fishing," Mama said.
     "Three days ago, he went. Come home tomorrow, or next day after that.
     The army man glanced around the front room. "You have a radio?"
     Mama shook her head.
     Kimi sneaked up and peeked around Mama's legs.
     "You mind if we look around?" the man asked.
     "Please," Mama said. "Look the house... please..."
     Grampa stepped back and let them pass. He studied them closely. We waited in the front room while the three men searched the house in less than a minute. When they finished, the army guy went over to Grampa and said, "Someone reported that you kept messenger pigeons.... How long have you been sending messages to the enemy?"
The reader can feel the tension here, and it starts with a hammering sound--Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!--on the door of a Japanese family's house after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The banging sound is so loud, so frightening, that it sends shivers up the reader's spine, just as it makes the heart of the young narrator start to pound.

Then Salisbury gives the reader a voice ("Open up in there!"), followed by the first visual of the source of the tension: the dark shadow of a man standing outside the door, with a pistol strapped to his belt.

Not just any man. An Army man. And two policeman. With the power to search the house for evidence that these Japanese Americans might be traitors reporting to the Japanese in secret.

The searcher mentions pigeons--mistakenly thought to be messenger pigeons--which is all that the Army man and policemen might need to make an arrest.

So, fear is a source of tension here: fear of being falsely accused; fear of having what you love taken away from you; fear of losing your home; fear of being separated from those you love; fear of having your true identity stolen.

When you are an American of Japanese ancestry, and the Japanese have just bombed the United States, you come under suspicion--another source of tension--and are guilty until proven innocent (which is the opposite of what American justice demands). Will you or your family be persecuted unfairly? (More tension.) Will you suffer needlessly? (Yet more tension.)

In these examples from two of my favorite stories, we can see how tension is built around fear--fear of danger, fear of losing something valuable, fear of being misunderstood--but tension can also be built around the question "what will happen next?"

So, in Coman's story, the question of whether Jamie can flee to safety is a contributing source of tension.

In Salisbury's story, the question of whether the Army man or policemen will find any incriminating evidence during the search is a contributing source of tension in the story.

You know when a story has tension and when it doesn't. Sometimes you wait patiently, sometimes impatiently, to feel its presence.

A story without tension is like carbonated soda that's lost its fizz. Flat. No surge or charge.

But a story with tension, well, it's like popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne and feeling the spray and never wanting the story to end.

For more information about crafting scenes with tension, you might check out:

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