Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tension on Every Page (and all that crap...)

As you probably already know, I dislike rules. I don't like people telling me what to do, and I especially don't like people building a box around my creativity. It's stifling. I can't work that way. I've also read one too many posts lately about rules and how the new trend is barreling toward everyone ignoring them.

Yet, I don't think we really are ignoring them. I think we like to pretend we are, but secretly, we're looking over our shoulder at the rule makers (hmmm, agents, publishers, the marketplace, our fellow bloggers...) who keep yelling "If you do that your story is going to suck!"

And we quickly turn back around and pretend we're ignoring them, but we delete that adverb anyway or cut the flashback or prologue or extra 10,000 words.

After judging all the entries for my short story contest, I realize there is always a need for discipline. Rules, maybe not so much, but discipline, yes. Stories can get sloppy around the edges and especially the middles. They can feel like jello, and I don't like that feeling. I think one of the biggest problems I found with stories that didn't make it into my final cut of "I think this is a winner" pile, was lack of discipline - attention to details, cutting unnecessary story, etc.

The difference, to me, between rules and discipline is this:

(RULE) - Hmm, it's like a plug-this-here-and-it-will-fix-the-problem product. In fact, it IS a product. How many WRITING BOOKS have you read? Yeah, I thought so.

(DISCIPLINE) - It's more like FIGURING IT OUT ON YOUR OWN and sticking with it, isn't it?

See, I happen to believe that every story needs tension. It falls flat without it. I'll read along in a story and about the time I realize I'm bored out of my mind I see that the story lacks one main element - tension. That's a big RULE for me. But that's for me. Your idea of tension is different than my idea of tension. We all like different things.

So I think you need tension, whatever that is. (And by the way, I don't think tension means suspense. Suspense means you don't know something. Tension is more like stretching. It's uncomfortable. It means conflict and worry and your reader's heart beating faster because they see that the character is going to lose something or never gain what they lost in the first place. The fact that your reader cares about your character and will keep turning the pages to get past that uncomfortable "stretching" probably means there's some good tension going on. And that's my lame attempt at 11:00 at night to explain tension).

So you think you've put tension in your story, but I'm still bored. Your other readers are bored, too, or at least you suspect they are. No one is publishing your story. There's obviously a problem. Maybe not for you because you like what you've written, but for everyone else there's a problem, and if you want to sell your story and have more than 5 people read it and enjoy it, you should probably change some things.

Please don't go out and buy a writing book and think it's going to solve everything for you. Sure, read it. Absorb it. Consider what it says. But understand that every word in there is what worked for THAT writer and what they think is good writing. The book isn't going to make you a good writer. Your discipline is.

If your story lacks tension, go read a story packed with tension. Then read another one and another one and another one. Then go back to your story and you might see what it's missing. Reading a book about tension and how to put it into your story will help you learn the rules, but on many levels it won't get you far - unless you want to sound like a machine spitting out a mechanical story. Studying what works will get you somewhere. It will give you intuition where rules never could.


  1. It's rare that I don't have anything to add but this post was perfect!
    Tension in every syllable!

  2. I've been so consumed with all the rules lately I've given myself a nasty case of writing paralysis. Every time I use an adverb, or a dreaded -ing word, out comes the rule-keeper. (She looks something like a cross between the crypt-keeper and a parochial school nun.)
    This blessed me! Thank you.

  3. So true! I've gotten more out of reading good novels than I've learned from books on writing.

    Great post!

  4. Its definitely a matter of practice, and you do indeed need to be aware of the rules in order to manipulate them and make the most out of them. This is a good post for those who worry too much about the technical side of writing, rather than focusing on talent, and letting ideas flow.

  5. I think your last paragraph is the most important thing here. Learn about good writing by reading good writing, not by reading a list of rules and working out of a "Write Your Novel!" cookbook.

    If you can figure out how a writer pulled something off in a book you love and admire, then you've learned how to do it yourself. Learn to look deeper into how your favorite writers work, to see past the funny dialogue or the world building or the plot twists.

    You know me: I think that most problems with fiction aren't in the writing so much as they're in the story. People don't pay enough attention to what makes their favorite stories actually work; they just look at all the surface elements or read blogs about writing...hey, that's us. Never mind that last bit.

  6. I couldn't agree more. Great post. For some reason I just had a line from the movie Matrix pop into my head that is kind of applicable: (in regards to being told something by the Oracle)

    "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."

    You can know the rules by heart but you have to figure out which ones work for you and in what doses. No one can tell you, you have to learn for yourself.

  7. Yep. Good post! Just what I needed while staring at a screen full of words wondering what was wrong with the scene. Tension.

  8. No!*banging fist on desk* Tension in every syllable is not enough! Rubbish! I t m u s t be t-e-n-s-i-o-n in every letter!

    We...must...all write like...Captain...Kirk...TALKS!

    Michelle, I mean it sincerely when I say, I love you.

    The title of this alone made my day. God, I love this place.

    Rules schmules. Maybe this will finally get me over my writer's barricade (too big this time to be simply called a 'block')


  9. I don't think writing rules exist. There are opinions, suggestions, advice, guidelines for style...but no hard and fast rules.

    Scott make a good point about the difference between writing and story-telling. A novel is more than a sequence of grammatically correct sentences.

  10. Using other texts that worked as examples of what TO DO is crucial so that your writing doesn't seem contrived. I like that you've distinguished tension from suspense. Great point! Thanks for sharing your insights.


  11. Andrew: Thanks! That's a big compliment. :)

    Niki: It's important to give yourself permission to do whatever you want to do when it comes to creativity. Otherwise it's not creativity. Revising is where the "art" part comes in, in my opinion.

    Tere: I have, as well. I'm glad I was an English major because I think it taught me a lot subconsciously.

    Aretha: I've run across a lot of people who stress too much about the technical side of things. I'm one of them. I mostly wrote this post for me. :)

    Scott: Yes, writing cookbooks make me cringe. I own one - The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. But I like that one. It feels like a classic to me.

    Yeah, never mind that last bit, but that just gave me a good idea for a post. :)

    Amanda: Haha, great quote! I'm about to quote The Matrix again down below.

    Steena: Glad this could be helpful! I hope you can squeeze that tension in there. Let it drive things forward.

    Bru: I love Captain Kirk! Haha. But I don't want my books sounding like him, that's for sure.

    You're suffering from a writing barricade? That's awful. :( Good luck in getting past!

    Rick: I don't think there are rules, either. People keep calling them rules, but they're more like what you say.

    There is no spoon.

    Marissa: Thanks for stopping by! I think the only way to write well is to read a lot of good writing and figure out why it's good. Then apply that, or at least practice over and over and over until you develop your own style.

  12. Intuition... I like it. That's how *I* write, anyway. I know all the rules, and certainly when I'm editing, I'll think about them and try to apply 'em, but the actual storytelling bit? I wing it. Do what comes naturally.

    If that works? BONUS!


    P.S. You said CRAP! *gasp* :)

  13. Simon: Crap is one of my favorite, yeah.

    Yes, intuition. It's definitely something I've worked for. It's nice to be able to use it now and know my stories won't come out complete crap.


  14. Where do you keep hearing about a new rule-breaking trend??? Just about everywhere I go lately, I see slaves to rules, I see stagnation, or blatant backward movement.

    I've never been a fan of how-to books. I read some years ago, but my focus has always been learning fiction writing by reading fiction inside the actual narratives--and by writing fiction of course. That's the most important learning method. Practice, practice, practice, and then, just when you think you've had enough practice, practice some more.

    But I think looking at the actual thing (fiction in this case) rather than The Thing Removed And Only Stuff Around The Thing (fiction how-to books in this case) is usually the most accurate way of observing--and the most accurate way of learning. Too much extrapolating and entropy involved with the thing-removed route. But, of course, there's always some of that involved when looking at one fiction book and using the methods in that to write your own fiction book. I just think there's a bit less. At least you're comparing a variety of apple to another variety of apple, and not to a potato!

  15. FP: I've seen posts here and there, but I also spend a terrible amount of time looking through posts, so it may seem more than it really is.

    I've never been a fan of how-to books, either. I just hope here at the Lab that we don't always sound like How-To people. We try to stay pretty open and just help people get in the right direction, I think, if they need it, and then we like to get discussions going. I mainly do this so I don't feel like my brain is turning to mush. It kind of did that after I graduated. :)

  16. Michelle: I like "The Art of Fiction" a lot. "On Becoming a Novelist" is pretty good, too. Neither of these are "how-to" books, but are more collected essays on what it's like to be writing fiction at a high level, so they're informative and dynamic reads. I also think that O'Connor's essays are worth reading, and a lot of the Paris Review series of interviews with writers are good, though mostly for inspiration and not so much for technique.

    I will also come out and say that, almost all the time, the rules of basic grammar apply. I have my weaknesses in spelling and usage, but I try to find and fix them, not shake my fist at grammar and call myself a rebel.

  17. Scott: Yes, I own The Art of Fiction because of a college class. It's one of the best books I've read about writing, and I agree that it's not a how-to book. I need to check out On Becoming a Novelist.

    Grammar rules almost always apply, yes! They aren't optional most of the time, and I don't consider them rules as much as I consider them common sense. :)

  18. Great advice. My sensei used to say, "Thinking destroys knowing." Meaning, once you reach a certain level of skill, overthinking will only stifle your flow. Of course, we don't begin already "knowing" everything about our craft. I think the trick lies in being able to consider rules of thumb for what they are and not being afraid to disregard them when we have a good reason. On the other hand, staying open to solving our problems when something isn't working.

  19. Great post.

    I'm not much for rules either and I love how you susbtitute something much better, discipline.

  20. Excellent post. Seeing as writing is an artistic endeavor, I oft wonder why there are so many rules... I do see the need for them, sure, but when so many people are hammering the rules home, the box becomes a little too-well sealed.

  21. Genie: Yes, perfectly said! I try to keep an open mind when it comes to writing. It's difficult to do with so much writing noise going on around me.

    Mayowa: Yeah, the discipline thing I'm still working on. ;)

    Bane: I think it's because we can be so insecure as writers that falling back on the "walls" feels like the only option at times. It can become addicting, I think.

  22. Sorry I haven't had time to jump in today! But, I read the great post, and I'm with Scott B. and F.P. and others, I think the end is great advice.

  23. This post was like an epiphany for me. I've never seen in articulated better. Discipline can't be learned in a book. There's no substitute for it--and your stories are destined to be mediocre without it.

  24. great post! First you learn the rules and then you learn how to break or bend them, otherwise all the rules become bars of a cage.

  25. Oh, I love the way you distinguish the two. I always wonder, what exactly is tension? The description you give about the heart beating and the uncomfortable need to turn the page, makes perfect sense.

  26. Davin: I know you were really busy yesterday! It's all good. Sometimes it's sad when it takes me a whole post to get to the good point in the end. Or maybe that's how all posts are!

    Gray: Thanks for reading! Yes, I think "destined" is a good term here. :)

    Eeleen: I feel like a bird in a cage more often than I'd like to admit! It's nice to know that if I work hard enough I'll get that little door open.

    Mary: That's just my interpretation, but I'm glad you like it! I've never thought of them as the same thing or else they'd be called the same thing.

  27. Ha, I think your definition of tension is great. Your late-night brain is smarter than you think!


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