Tension

Jan. 8th, 2005 07:27 am
lullenny: (eats)
[personal profile] lullenny
The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Tension

Tension is the mother of fiction. When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.

Tension is created by conflict. The conflict might be between characters -- how a young man seeks his freedom from his claustrophobic family, how a woman fights enemies to save her home. The conflict might be between your character and the forces of nature -- how someone survives being lost in grizzly-bear country, or keeps from drowning when her boat capsizes. These conflicts are subject to endless variations: your character against forces earthly (Immigration Service bureaucrats) or unearthly (space viruses), technological machines (planes whose landing wheels have fallen off) or political machines (Germany or Tammany), the forces of repression (rigid priests and sadistic teachers) or the forces of anarchy (street gangs or lynch mobs), not to mention bad landlords, corrupt cops, loud neighbors, insurance salesmen, and vicious ex-lovers.

In much serious fiction, although the tension is high, the conflicts are psychological and philosophical. They might involve the character's quarrel with her religious faith, her ambivalence about her profession, her struggle to express her affection to those she loves. The traditional formulation that all fiction has three central conflicts (humans fight one another, nature, or themselves) is an interesting insight, but it's not that simple or separable. Characters don’t' merely face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies.

Writers are often unhappy with the idea that there must always be tension in a story, that a story is always about something that is wrong. "Why can't stories be happy?" they say. "Why can't a story be about a pleasant day at the beach with the family?" "Why do stories always have to be about troubled people and conflict?"

Perhaps one answer is that if you tell a story, you're implicitly saying to readers, "Listen to me, this is interesting. This is something different. This about something happening."

Readers take "something happening" to mean something out of the ordinary. Tension. Conflict. Confrontation.

"A story about a beautiful day at Palisades Amusement Park is out of the ordinary," the writer says. "It was a rare day, a wonderful day, a day when everything went right. Why isn't that a story?"

The writer's argument only makes our point stronger. His example can be a story. There is real tension in his re-creating that perfect day. When Wallace Stevens wrote, "Death is the mother of beauty," I think he meant that we value beauty because we know it is fleeting -- the ripe fruit will soon rot, the beautiful person will inevitably die. If with every sentence of the Palisades Park story we feel the fragility of that day's beauty, the recognition of how exceptional it is, the way the characters transcend their everyday troubles, we feel the tension, and it will be a story.

Tension is inseparable from other aspects of storytelling. The more you involve readers with your character, the more tension they feel, so character development is crucial. The more intriguing the situation itself, the more interesting the tension, so plot development is crucial. The more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension, so evocative detail is crucial. The more you make readers understand the significance of the outcome, the more tension is created, so thematic development is crucial.

At the end tension may be solved, dissolved, or resolved. Or it may not be. Some stories spoil themselves by trying to bring closure to that which can only stay open. The tension that lingers can make a story memorable.

See Bear at the Door, Beginnings, Endings, Plot, Suspense, Zigzag.

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