Category Archives: The Writing Life

Fire up the engine

Happy February everyone! We’ve seen a lot of great articles this month about tension. What it is, what it means and how to bring it to life. For my post, I’d like to highlight one of my favorite mechanisms for creating this delicious extended period where the reader is squirming in his or her seat. Let me introduce you to a little concept I call the Tension Engine.

The tension engine is basically a ticking clock, an escalating background situation that the heroes must deal with in addition to whatever conflict might be directly opposing them on a scene-to-scene basis. It is not the immediate problem, it is that secondary oncoming problem running underneath it all. Not as immediate as a direct conflict like a man with a gun blocking the heroes way, or a trap door suddenly opening under their feet. No, this is the problem they remember after they solve that one- -they moment where they (and the reader) say “Oh right, there is still that to deal with.” The smile drains from their faces, their recent triumph quickly forgotten. There is still much work to do.

The tension engine is often an external obstacle not created by the antagonist at all, but rather a force of nature. In the worst (or best) cases, it is not even resolvable. It is a train coming down the tracks at our heroes and it doesn’t care whether they move or not. 

A good friend of mine created one of these in one of her stories, bringing me to notice the concept for the first time. The main heroes had taken on an automaton of sorts as they struggled to escape the villains through a moving train. The automaton was loyal to them at first, but quickly it became apparent something was wrong. It was growing more violent with each encounter they had with their foes, and it was obvious at some point it would become uncontrollable. Without this ally, they had no hope of defeating their enemies, but staying with it seemed to be risking death.

I found this brilliant, and began to look for other examples of this concept in popular fiction.Not surprisingly I found it everywhere. The tension engine is the bomb that cannot be defused, forcing our hero(es) to recklessly try to escape to a safe distance. It is the fast acting virus that cannot be cured, its victim perhaps privy to key information that the heroes must extract before he expires. It thrums along in the coming storm, an onrushing cloud of nature’s violence that cares not for the conflicts of the humans below it.

The tension engine is a great tool to fire off in your story early, keeping things from ever feeling too calm, too safe. No matter what problems your characters might solve or victories they might achieve, the engine still runs like an unstoppable machine- -keeping your heroes nervous and your reader interested.

Developing Tension Over Time

When I think about how to develop tension in a story, I think of the stories I’ve read that create a sense of anticipation in the resolution of a story element. Tension can be raw and primal, like the tension between the great white whale and Captain Ahab, or it can be subtle and somber, like the tension in “Flowers for Algernon.” There are many kinds of tension an author can employ, but for any of them to work, the tension must be compelling. And what makes tension compelling is consequence. When the story element is resolved, the character or characters involved must cross some line, and their lives should be forever altered. For better or worse, there is no turning back.

It is the anticipation of the consequence that drives the tension. If you want to create truly compelling tension, you have to make the consequences clear, and make them matter to the character or characters involved. The more characters involved, and the more severe the consequences, the higher the tension can be driven.

A good story will have multiple, simultaneous narratives, each with its own conflict and tension. Just as plot lines should intersect and diverge, tension also should rise and fall. A story should have a rhythm, a cadence, a variation of pacing that gives the reader a chance to absorb the story and increase the anticipation of the final climax.

Foreshadowing is one way to promote the anticipation necessary to create compelling tension in a story. But if you want to really push your tension to maximum levels, you should have the resolution of minor tension create new and more powerful consequences for the major tension you are developing. Ideally all of the tension should eventually coalesce into the final, dramatic resolution of the major conflict of the story, delivering all the resolution the reader has been hoping for, and tying the entire story together.

That all takes careful planning. It’s harder to do if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, than if you work from firm outlines and stick to them. When I am editing my stories, I look for any opportunity to adjust story elements to weave the plot more tightly. I do the same for tension, tweaking scenes and tying elements together so that every scene contributes something to the major elements of tension, driving the story to the ultimate conclusion where that tension is finally released.

The Art of Miscommunication

A few years ago, at the family cabin, my wife chastised one of the kids for running past a wooden stake, topped with a pink ribbon.

“Get over here. The neighbors put up those stakes because they were tired of people going into their yard.”

This surprised me, as I knew my dad had surveyed the property in an effort to divide the lot. The stakes were commissioned by him, not the neighbor.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Your mom.”

My mom hadn’t communicated with my dad about the survey. So my mom, in an effort to understand reality, assigned a narrative that made sense to her, along with a motive. She didn’t know about the stakes, so obviously it came from the neighbors who shared her border. But why would they do such a thing? Because they were sick and tired of her grandkids disturbing the pine needles on their property, obviously.

Had she just called the neighbors, or mentioned it to her husband, the miscommunication could have been avoided, instead the narrative she created was passed around to my wife, then my kids and i’m sure others in my extended family still think the neighbors are a bunch of pricks because of it.

Two parts in the example above, create and build tension.

  1. Using point of view, we can develop a perception of reality unique to our characters. The disparity between these perceptions are where we breed tension, with each character reacting according to their perception to a situation.
  2. Having our characters assign motive to others without understanding their perception of reality.

In Les Miserables, Fantine hates Jean Valjean because he fired her. He hadn’t, that was her perception. She was fired by a female supervisor who’d discovered her illegitimate child. The supervisor brought up the situation to Valjean, omitting some detail, and Valjean invited her to do what she thought best.

Later, after Fantine plummeted into poverty and sin, all for the noble cause of caring for her daughter, she confronts Valjean with anger, matching the hatred he must hold for her. Only, he doesn’t even know who she is and tries to help her as he would anyone in her situation. The tension explodes, becoming another inciting event for Valjean when he understands Fantine’s perception of reality, he’d fired her, his motive, he despised her for her sins. His perception of reality was quite different. Anyone could find redemption. She’d made a mistake and should hardly have to pay for it the rest of her life. In fact, God could use that mistake to bring about a wonderful miracle that was Cosette.

Later in the story of Valjean we find another miscommunication between Javert and Valjean. Javert expects to be shot for spying on the revolutionaries. Valjean volunteers to shoot Javert, not because he wanted to be free of the old prison guard, but because he wanted to save Javert’s life. This blew Javert’s mind and he vowed to continue to hunt Valjean down, which he does later, but when it comes time to arrest Valjean, his perception of reality has changed so drastically, he chooses to not live in his newfound reality and kills himself after letting Valjean go.

As a reader we can bask in the tension created by conflicting perceptions of realities from two or more characters that we’ve come to know through their point of views.

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

Mental or Emotional Strain

Guest Post by Aubrie L. Nixon

Oh boy, do I love this subject. I have been told by many readers and a few friends that I am a wee bit, err…CRAZY. That the dark side of me comes out to play in my writing. Honestly? I wouldn’t argue with them. I like to torture and create the most delicious tension for my characters. Not only do I enjoy making them suffer physically and emotionally, but I am huge fan of sexual tension.

To create tension is to create a pace where your characters are suffering. For me, it is quite easy to do that. I have always found that the more you suffer the greater the reward. In the case of fictional characters, at least for my characters, it is the same. In order to grow and become who you need to become there needs to be tension, trials, etc… In the series I am working on now, there is a lot of strain put onto my characters and their relationships with one another. They are expected to accept what they have been assigned to do, and do it with ease. Now this lovely group of people are warriors and assassins. You can imagine what spending weeks with a group of killers that you don’t particularly like can do for the amount of tension in an already bleak situation.

To say it makes my dark heart sing would be an understatement (insert evil laugh).

Characters drive your story, to create more depth for them you need to see the struggle and grow. Tension, the dirty bastard that she is, can do that. My personal form of torture, I mean tension, is the big S. Sexual. It is perhaps the most fun to play around with. Especially when you have two characters who don’t particularly like one another. You can put them in the most ridiculous of situations, like having one tackle the other while they are arguing. They can stare at each other with anger, when we all know what they realllyyy want. You can create silly nicknames that one character gives another, that one doesn’t like. There can be beautiful banter, pranks and arguing. It will probably drive the other characters in your book batty, because everyone can what is happening but the two characters the tension is between. It is one of my favorite things, and I always get particularly giddy when I read it or write it. You always know how perfect it is going to be when they finally explode and just jump each others bones! Pure perfection.

No matter what kind of tension it is, I am a big fan! What about you?

What kind of tension do you like? What kind of tension makes you roll your eyes?

aubreyAubrie is 24 years young. She plays mom to a cutest demon topside, and is married to the hottest man in the Air Force. When she isn’t writing she is daydreaming about hot brooding anti-heroes and sassy heroines. She loves Dragon Age, rewatching Game of Thrones and reading all things fantasy. She runs a local YA/NA bookclub with 3 chapters, and over 200 members. Her favorite thing to do is eat, and her thighs thank her graciously for it. If she could have dinner with anyone living or dead it would be Alan Rickman because his voice is the sexiest sound on earth. He could read the dictionary and she would be enthralled. Her current mission in life is to collect creepy taxidermy animals because she finds them cute and hilarious. She resides just outside of Washington DC.