Last week, we had an interesting discussion of tension. It started here, and Scott mentioned it earlier here, but Andrew also had a nice post about tension, including the idea of high stakes, here. His examples are great, so go check out the post.
I wanted to throw in my own thoughts, not so much on whether or not we should have tension, but on how to create tension, as I see it.
Start actual blog post content now.
I'll first define tension as that element in a story that makes a reader want to keep reading. General, yes. And, my definition is not based on any text book or anything. I was experiencing it last night, actually, as I was reading more of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. (The chapter titles alone make this book worth reading.)*
How do we as writers make a reader want to keep reading? I can think of four approaches.
A. What's in the shoebox?
The first approach is what I think of as the What's-in-the-shoebox? approach. It's a technique that I see most often in contemporary fiction, and it can create a lot of tension.
I became aware of this technique when I was reviewing a WIP that involved a character who had received a mysterious shoebox from a long lost friend. At the start of each chapter, the character tried to make time to go up to her room to open the shoebox to see what was inside, but by the end of each chapter, she got too distracted by life crises to actually do so. I raced through the book, asking myself, "What's in the shoebox? What's in the bloody shoebox?" Talk about tension. The writing could have been horrible, and I still would have kept reading if only to find out what was in the shoebox.
The advantage to this approach is that it's straight forward and pretty thrilling. I think of all the techniques this one probably makes me read the fastest. The disadvantage is that a not-so-good writer can make a reader angry by holding off something too long.
Distractions are a must in this technique. Every time you postpone the reveal of what's in the shoebox, you have to offer up another bit of writing that's equally interesting, otherwise, the reader will skip ahead or toss the book out of the car window...if he or she happened to be driving while reading.
The best writers will set up this tension in a natural way, so it doesn't feel so much like a tease, but a normal progression of the story. Michelle uses this a lot, and she does it well. Check out Cinders, for example.
B. The Fortune-teller told you so
If I could fake a gypsy accent, I would do so now. You know what I mean, right? A character decides (usually against his/her will) to visit a fortune teller, and the fortune teller says something like "You will die underneath a blue light by the kiss of a poisonous tree octopus."
In this form of tension, a reader is told the end of the story, and then gets the excitement of figuring out how the character reaches that end. It's not about point A or B, but about all the stuff in the middle.
I don't often use this technique, but I've been experimenting with it more and more. What I like about it is that it makes the reader focus on the middle of the story sections, which, hey, is most of the book!
Of course, the writer always has some wiggle room. The prediction doesn't have to come true, and a character might be able to change the future. That can also create tension.
The bottom line for this technique is that the reader already knows the end and focuses instead on the road to the end. The skill involves making that road interesting and surprising.
C. She didn't just do what I think she did, did she?
In our discussions, I think Scott and I opt for this method of creating tension the most often. The way I describe this approach is that the writer presents everything in real time. Nothing is held in secret, nor is the ending revealed ahead of time. The tension comes from the possibilities of what might happen, given the circumstances.
I think the skill in this technique is to present enough "supporting evidence" so that the reader can see the possibilities of what might happen. It means having a lot of interesting background and dropping hints along the way.
Will your character have a heart attack? You can create the tension by showing him eating potato chips and bacon all the time. Maybe every time he's in a scene, you show him gasping for breath and cramming food in his mouth. The readers will worry for him, and that worry makes them want to read on and find out what happens.
With my current style of revising as I go, this technique works well because I'm able to polish up the background and find the clues before I move forward. The more sensitive I am to what questions I have as a reader while I'm writing, the better I am at using that information to create tension.
D. Good thing I like Haruki Murakami.
This last approach isn't really an approach, but I'm finding it to be true for a lot of books I read lately. Basically, I think a skilled writer can somehow convince a reader to trust them enough to follow them anywhere. Then, they can present material that might seem random or disconnected, and it creates tension because a devoted fan will wonder how it's all going to come together. They'll read on to find out.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is working that way for me. Partially, I don't get it at all. It seems like a bunch of disconnected pieces and details. But, because I've read another book by Murakami and some of his short stories, I trust him. I know he's good, and I'm willing to go along for the ride.
Maybe this only works if you have a reader that's already committed. But, what I like about this is that, once you have the readership, it really frees you up to experiment with new structures. I'd guess that this could be done even with a new writer, as long as she or he is able to make the reader feel secure early on. Great writing right away can do the trick.
So, there you have it. My take on some different ways to create tension. Do you have other techniques? Do you play around with any of these?
*Wow, I'm rambly today, sorry.