Craig here again. I wrote a pretty popular post about suspense a month or so ago. It seems to me that you guys like craft posts, so I’m piggybacking that success with a post about tension.
People, just like you and I, live pretty normal lives. Sure, we deal with tension, and in my case hypertension, but it’s all pretty mundane. We read to escape the normal world. I write across science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal genres, but I’m not talking that kind of escapism. (Not today, at least.) When we read, we want to get a bigger picture, something where the stakes matter.
Many authors fall in love with their fictional characters. Because of this, nothing ever happens to stress them out. This is not the kind of escape people want to read about. They want to know that someone faced bigger odds than they ever have and succeeded. Fiction isn’t the real world, even if you’re writing something outside my genres. You still need tension even in an historical piece, or a quirky romance.
I think we’re all born with an idea that tension makes for better stories. We simply train ourselves away from this, because we don’t like dealing with it ourselves.
Think about your own children. I raised two sons and a daughter. I also have two granddaughters, and a grandson. The toys I have for an example are Barbies right now. You can substitute Ninja Turtles, GI-Joes, or whatever fits your surroundings. I’m going with Barbie.
Barbie has everything. Selling Barbie is different than selling books, so we need to acknowledge that to make my point. Barbie is only the beginning for parental spending. Soon you need a jet, a camper, a meth lab, whatever else they offer. This works because Barbie is boring. She has no tension in her life, and kids turn to fresh distractions.
As an author, I can’t use that business model. Oh sure, I could order a million Lisa Burton lunchboxes, and some plastic GTOs for Clovis. (A couple of my original characters.) But nobody is ever going to buy them. At least not until Hollywood discovers them. My business model is to sell the next book, based upon the quality of the one you just read. This means suspense, action, and yes tension.
Watch the kids play, but don’t interrupt. They bash Ninja Turtles together for a while. Maybe Barbie disappears with Ken into the toy box for some quality time. Eventually, something else happens. (Dun, dun, duuuun.)
Barbie loses her head. This is because without all the fluff, the story ceases being fun without tension. Bet she’s feeling tension now. Even children get it. Barbie kisses Ken for the 10,000th time is boring. Will Barbie still love Ken after he lost an arm is a better story.
Strip away all the jet setting and ask yourself if your story has enough tension. Make your characters deal with crap, and not just the big stuff. Readers will relate to it.
Make your heroine stay late because the copier refused to work. Maybe her date got tired of waiting and left the restaurant. Tension. You can reward her later by having the hunky copier guy moonlighting as the bartender.
Make your superhero step in dog poo. Let some kid spill a milkshake down his cape before he meets with the Mayor. Add a little tension.
Completely change up the big business presentation at the last minute. Your character can still walk in and nail it, but the tension makes it interesting. It adds stress that makes him real.
Make your characters afraid of a specific teacher. Have them fight with a spouse. It’s real life, and makes your fiction more believable. Make sure you assess these moments as plants too. Maybe they can make a payoff later in the story. (Reference the repairman/bartender up above.)
Tension can also be suspense, but it doesn’t have to be. A diver’s air meter indicating empty is suspenseful and tense. The dog poo up the page isn’t suspenseful, but it adds a different quality to Judge Judy’s day.
Sometimes a hangnail is an annoyance, but what if you’re a Major League Baseball pitcher, and every throw costs $10,000? Remember the drone incident from the 2016 World Series?
Think about your scenes and add a little tension to them, and don’t forget the small things. It keeps fictional life interesting. Horses throw shoes on occasion, people have to fly on standby, grandma’s vase gets broken, it’s realistic. It will make your characters more believable, and prevent your next book from being treated like Barbie’s head.
Let me hear from you in the comments. Have you found unique ways to keep your characters uncomfortable, and tense?