Sunday, April 27, 2008

Redlines Eight: Tension Statements

I don’t know about you, but I’m bored with grammar and sentence structure. So I thought this month, we’d look at a way to reduce reader boredom.

We all know what conflict is, right? It’s the engine that drives the plot scene by scene. But let’s face it, not every sentence in your book is going to bristle with conflict. Sometimes sentences need to accomplish other missions, such as describing a setting or character, controlling pacing, or performing other less-conflicted tasks.

So how do we keep these sentences from boring readers? By turning them into tension statements.

Tension statements take many forms, but the basic idea is a sentence (or small cluster of sentences) containing elements that are unexpected, unsettling, and/or contrasting. These elements set up subtle tension in readers’ minds and keep them interested while you deal with simple mechanics like setting the scene or providing exposition. Writers from across the fiction spectrum rely on tension statements to hold reader interest.

Let’s look at some examples. We’ll start with the opening lines from “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen:

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard--and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on...”

Austen flaunts reader expectations of a gothic heroine’s background, and creates a contrast between that expectation and Catherine’s character. She introduces the heroine by saying she is not a likely heroine--a self-contrasting statement that creates a subtle reader tension by making us wonder, why not? A lesser writer might have accurately written, “Catherine’s family was abundant, happy, healthy, and financially stable.” But Austen unsettles us by taking the expected gothic romance elements (poverty, being locked in attics, being an orphan) and presenting these as desirable expectations. This contrast, this use of unexpected images, although humorous, creates subtle tension for the reader, who becomes instantly engaged.

What’s missing from Austen’s opening lines? Conflict. In fact, we can safely assume that the Morland family gets along well.

A less humorous form of tension statements is in opening lines of “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier:

“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman's eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see to the red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.
“Had it not been too dim, Inman would have read to pass the time until breakfast, for the book he was reading had the effect of settling his mind. But he had burned up the last of his own candles...”

Look at the opening image: flies landing on a wounded man, their wings loud enough and their feet busy enough to wake him. It's not a soothing image. It's an image that creates tension--not conflict, but tension--through its sheer creepiness. Frazier compares the flies to a “yardful of roosters.” We all know what roosters sound like: loud and strident. And we all know what flies’ wings sound like: not much. Saying that the flies are now like the roosters creates an unexpected contrast between things that are usually unalike, and builds line-by-line tension.

More tension statements follow. Usually Inman can see out the window, but now he can't. The land is flat, but the hospital is on a swell. Reading his book would settle his mind, but he can't read now. The window is open but might as well be painted grey. One tension statement after another. Something is unavailable, something is an irritant, something is different from its usual state. These are all forms of tension statements. We're intrigued and keep reading because even though Inman is merely laying in a bed, there's loads of tension.

Finally, let’s look at Georgette Heyer’s “The Foundling,” which opens with a guide book description of a Duke’s house as the Duke returns from hunting. His house, his servants, and his childhood are explored in the first five pages. Heyer focuses on the Duke’s desire to be left alone, and his household’s conflicting desire to monitor him, a situation that is key to the plot but not very lively despite the obvious conflict. Heyer keeps it interesting by sprinkling in tension statements:

“[T}he butler . . . went in a stately way down the passage to open the door that led into the main hall of the house.
But the Duke again disappointed him, this time by electing to run up the secondary staircase at the end of the passage.”

There are several contrasts here that provide tension:
* the butler’s expectation versus the Duke’s disappointing behavior
* the butler’s stately gait versus the Duke’s running
* the “main” hall versus the “secondary” staircase

Note that Heyer uses the word “passage” in both sentences. She is a very deliberate and controlled writer, and this echo is meant to link the two sentences and heighten the subtle perception that they contrast each other. They are the same, and yet they are different, and therein lies the tension.

Later in the same book, she uses a different type of word-pairing to create tension in a transition between two scenes:

“The rest of the day was spent, as far as he was concerned, in a singularly profitless fashion.”

Which are the related words? “Spent” and “profitless.” When we spend, we expect to gain something in return. But in this case, the expectation was defied -- and subtle tension is created within this simple transitional sentence through nothing more than the deliberate use of two opposing words. Subtle and effective.

Do you get the general idea? This is the kind of thing that gets easier with practice, so here are some more examples. See if you can identify the source of tension in each example.

“If he had to wine, dine and proposition her, at least he wouldn’t be bored.”
- from “Simply Sinful” by Carly Phillips

“Donnalee had suggested that she join a gym to meet men, and she would, Hallie told herself, once she was at her goal weight.”
- from “This Matter of Marriage” by Debbie Macomber

[about New Year’s Eve] “You’re thrown in with people you don’t know and don’t want to be with, but you’re all going to share this intimate event with glee. If it kills you.”
- Laurie Graff, “You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs”

“Life will be wonderful. I will wake up every morning with a smile on my face like the perma-smile women in coffee commercials.”
- Sarah Mlynowski, “Milkrun”

[about coffee] “I focus on my beverage, attempting to stir the sweetened foam into the darker liquid below. It refuses to harmonize, clinging in wispy clumps to the wooden stirrer like the cottony clusters of mealy bugs on my sickly philodendron at home.”
- Wendy Markham, “Slightly Single”

This is the eighth in my old column called Redlines. If you've been reading edittorrent for a while, the ideas in this column will be familiar to you. We've talked about tension statements in other contexts before, mainly when we were talking about sentence-level reversals as a first sentence. (Look here for more.)

Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.



Dave Shaw said...

Does the lack of comments indicate a degree of tension about this post? >:-)

Edittorrent said...

LOL! Probably just means people are bored with this idea. We've gone over it already, but I figured I might as well post the column because it has some good examples from genre writing.


Anonymous said...

Far from bored! Just thinking. You have a real talent for formulating the distinctions between perfectly good and _interesting_ prose and I'm busy taking notes and looking at my own writing. (Also, one of my darlings is standing on a scaffold, pleading for its life, which is always a tense time. I really wish I could save this scene, but having rewritten everything that came before it, it might be for the chop.)

I have to admit that I don't see the inherent tension in the sentence starting 'Donnalee had suggested' because that's such a common clichee - 'nobody will be interested in me as I am'.

What I haven't quite grokked yet is when to use this technique in my own writing. On a scene level, I tend to go with McKee's demand for reversals - taking a character from one state to another, which works well for me, but I'm not yet certain how to this applies to my own writing.

These are definitely advanced writing techniques. And I love every minute of this.