ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): T is for Tension

Posted by on Oct 5, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Law, BrookeTension: Building it, Escalating it, Resolving it

My biggest challenge as a writer is that I hate tension in real life. I’m a conflict-avoider. I’ve had to work really hard to counteract this tendency in my professional and personal life.

So it makes sense that I’ve had to fight my conflict-avoidance in my writing, too. When one of my MFA mentors, Hollis Seamon, read the early half-draft of my novel, she said very kindly, “There’s not very much happening.” She explained how she thinks about developing tension in a novel. The word denouement, she said, means “unknotting.” Which means: everything that comes before the denouement (i.e., the whole novel) needs to be the “knotting-up.” My current draft looked like this: my narrator met someone for coffee and they talked; she met someone for dinner and they talked. “Not a novel,” Hollis said, still very kindly. You need to develop tension.

Building Tension: Load ’Em Up

In Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, she tells a story about rewriting a novel after her editor told her the final draft wasn’t publishable (and she’d already spent most of the advance). She said of that rewriting process, “I went ahead and let bad things happen to these people whom I had been protecting. I found places where I could lean on them harder, push them, load them up in a way that would make their catastrophe inevitable.”

I started letting my characters fight, misunderstand each other, say things they didn’t really mean, and make huge mistakes they would later regret. I killed off a character everyone had been counting on, and that death loaded tension on every other character and relationship. One character quit her job, another was diagnosed with a terminal illness, a third went off the deep end of alcoholism.

Escalating Tension Between Characters: Recognize Opportunity

Robert Olen Butler says in From Where You Dream that you have to be willing as a writer to go to dark places, to look the most painful moment of your own life in the face every day when you sit down to work. This is hard work, and it hurts. But you can teach yourself to do it. Sometimes it means an internal struggle while we’re writing.

Hollis suggested I try writing sections from another character’s perspective, so I tried out James as a narrator. James is the older brother of my main character, Laura, and he’s a raging alcoholic. I’ve had experience with alcoholism in my family, and writing from James’s point of view was hard and painful. I had to let him make bad decisions that put himself and other characters in jeopardy. I had to place myself in his desperate, restless mind. Every day that I sat down to write him, I had to look my own pain in the face. And his sections have revealed some of my best writing.

Escalating Tension Between the Narrator and the Audience: The Slow Reveal

I’ve been learning a lot from books and TV shows lately about the tension inherent in a slow reveal, exploiting the tension between the narrator and the audience. My tendency is to have a character unveil the whole story of something at once (i.e. to have Laura narrate the story of her divorce all in one scene).

It can be so much stronger, I’m learning, to reveal one piece of the puzzle at a time. TV shows are often great at this. In the A&E show Longmire (spoiler alert), the audience learns in the first episode that Sheriff Walt Longmire’s wife died a year ago, and that she had cancer. In the next episode we see him pulling on a shirt, and he has two long scars down his back. Where did he get those? Then he receives a letter from the Denver Police Department and burns it without opening it. Why the heck would he do that? Then it’s revealed that his wife was murdered in Denver—she didn’t die of cancer. Ah, so that letter must be in relation to her case. We learn that her killer was found murdered himself. Did Walt kill him—is that how he got those scars? This thread of tension keeps the audience interested over the long haul, keeps us wondering, What happened before? What happens next?

Resolving Tension: Unknotting the Knots

How to unknot all that tension? How to play a denouement, in a novel or in a story?

My mentor Rachel Basch gave me a helpful way to think about ending a novel: there’s the resolution of the plot lines, and there’s resolution of the emotional plot. Purposely not resolving tension—between characters, or a character and herself—can be its own resolution. Resolution is always a balancing act: resolving too much feels like the candy fluff ending of a romantic comedy, but a lack of resolution leaves the reader feeling let down and as if she wasted her time.

This is where another set of critical eyes can be necessary. It’s hard to be a reader of your own work. A friend or writing partner can give honest feedback about whether an ending feels too neat, or too unsatisfying.

As a reader my only requirement for endings is that I want the character to be in a different place than he or she was when the book started. There can still be some tension—otherwise everything goes slack. There can still be problems. That’s life.


Brooke Adams Law lives in New York with her husband, where she recently finished her first novel. She holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and a BA in English from Vassar College.   ABC’s of Writing

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