Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Dash of Tension

If you haven't read Alicia's last post about happy families at amusement parks, you might want to read it before you read this post. And then read the comments, particularly the one from Green Knight. In fact, let's just move that comment to the front page:

The happy family is an interesting problem. (As a reader, I'd hate a book with that theme, but that's another matter. But it offers interesting possibilities for setting up an undercurrent. The 'frantically happy' would not have occurred to me, but I would take it a step further and add an element of pressure. Both the theme park and the waterskiing will fit into that, and I'd sharpen that - a family trying to fit as much happyness into a short vacation as they can. Getting up at the crack of dawn, rushing the kids into the car (with laughter and jokes, but still pressure), a drive through rush-hour traffic, trying to get to all the rides (rather than enjoying the ones you love over and over again, no you have to pack all the experiences into it. Fast food, because there is no time to stop - they still haven't done all the rides, the kids chivvying each other along, leaving at the last minute, everyone on a high.

I like the idea of showing them happy - *but* they're working hard at it and nobody could keep that up for long.

And I'd go for background details that play with that picture -one of the kids gets a toy catapult, but the elastic snaps. Daddy fixes it, but still. The high speed train that could be seen from the road, sleek and powerful - but they come to the train crossing and have to wait for it.

Green Knight, I like the way you think. Adding pressure adds tension. This shows how tension is different from conflict, actually. A marvelous day, memories in the making, can still have tension. The people are getting along and enjoying themselves. How boring! A dash of tension is just what the reader wants to keep turning the pages. Alicia describes one very subtle way to add tension, that is, by ramping up the joy until it appears fragile and unreal. The reader absorbs all these cues and learns not to trust the bare facts. This creates tension because on the one hand, the reader is absorbing all this surface happiness, and on the other, they know it's false.

So I'd either ramp up the sense of impermanence and frailty in the happy day (show the ice cream melting, show the flowers wilting), or I'd cut the opening in the theme park and just show the family trudging through the parking lot, exhausted and blissed out. Show the effects of the perfect day without making us read the blow-by-blow. Your novel isn't a travel piece or a sales brochure. It's a novel, and the engine that drives a novel is tension. If you can't load enough tension into the happy day to make it interesting, then cut it.

Alicia and I debate this point pretty regularly -- and, as with most of our debates, the point will never be resolved because the real answers are case-specific. Theme is important. Theme needs to be set up early. Is setting up theme, by itself, enough to carry a scene, or any part of a scene?

I lean toward wanting more than just set-up. This is true regardless of what you're setting up, be it theme or setting or character. I don't prefer a slow buildup to the initiation of the conflict. Some set-up is required, of course, but the sooner the conflict is initiated, the sooner the reader becomes engaged.

Conflict is tension on steroids. You might not initiate the conflict until page ten, but pages one through nine will still need tension. Start with the happy family having the perfect day, if you like, if you think this is an effective way to lay the foundation for what follows. Just don't bore me while you're doing it.



Edittorrent said...

Well, let's say this is more than just a scene to set up the theme. If the action of the story-- what happens-- is some disaster that robs the family of its happiness, and then the slow recovery or maybe one of the children growing up traumatized or whatever, then the theme park can be the precursor to the disaster. Some stories start with or just before the disaster, or the inciting event, or whatever happens to make things change. But others have a "before" picture, a portrayal of the ordinary world, to show the contrast. This could be another genre thing-- adventure stories might start right before or at the big disaster, while romances and family dramas might start a bit before.

No matter what, the opening scene of all scenes should be multi-purpose-- not just to introduce the characters, or set up the theme, or show the Ordinary World, or show the situation, but all of those purposes, and maybe more. I think often we start with just one purpose, but the others can be layered in.

Julie Harrington said...

Reading this all over made me think of a couple of writing concepts like goal/motivation/conflict (which goes a long way toward building tension), symbolism, and constellation of images. I try to build a goal/motivation/conflict sequence for each scene so that the conflicts (whether they're resolved in the scene of not) generate new conflicts with a twist or spawn brand new conflicts as one is solved (Mary Jane might get the job she interviewed for but...). And when you add in symbolism to represent your theme (like the wilting flowers) and utilize a constellation of images for your characters, I think the elements play well with all the others to create that tension. The reader might not know *why* there's a feeling of mounting tension when these elements mingle together, but I think they do detect them. There are so many devices an author can utilize to convey so much without anyone even being away (heck, sometimes the writer isn't even aware of it until its all said and done) to subconsciously infuse a story with tension, symbolism, theme, etc. But I agree with the core principle that all the scenes should be relevant to those conflicts and goals, plot, tension, etc, etc., especially the opening scene.

And I think I just rambled and probably made no sense. This is why I should never reply this late at night. LOL.


Edittorrent said...

i think also readers subconsciously connect scenes which have the same motif. Like there are three scenes that take place by water-- the reader is going to link those three scenes subconsciously, and whatever thematic message is in those scenes will be amplified by the linkage.

I know there's a better way to say that, but I'm with you-- late at night replies aren't necessarily as cogent as I'd like! :P

Julie Harrington said...

Alicia, I know exactly what you mean by that association. I think a lot of authors do that intuitively and don't even realize they have done it until later. I've fallen into that category a few times. LOL. Or I'll wind up inserting an object into a story and realizing later *why* I did it and the function it truly serves as a symbol or association and the thematic message it amplifies. It's when I start trying to really think about it that I often run into a brick wall. Ack. Isn't that always the way it goes? LOL.