Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sentence-Level Tension and Reversals

Some of you may be familiar with the concept of reversals on the large-scale level. Reversals -- taking a plot element and literally reversing it -- enhance reader interest because in those moments, things change. If a sidekick is alive on one page and dead on the next, this is a reversal. If the romantic leads are in red-hot lust on one page, and seeing red on the next, this is a reversal. We could go on an on, examining plot twists and black moments for reversal elements which make the readers pay attention.

If you shrink this concept down to the sentence level by incorporating disparate or oppositional elements, you'll create instant tension. "Tension" in this case doesn't refer to stress or the kind of mood you endure when you want to slap someone but must smile instead. Instead, we're using the term to describe the intrigued but unsettled feeling that enhances the reading experience. Tension engages the reader.

You might be used to thinking of this concept as "raising story questions," but I think that's an only partly accurate way to describe the effect on the reader. Yes, the prose might very well raise story questions when it uses this kind of tension. But how often do you, as a reader, pause to articulate those questions? Probably, instead, you enter the mood of the sentence and keep reading. You become engaged, but you don't break the flow to figure out why.

Think of Dickens, who executed sentence level reversals all over the place. Who can forget the classic beginning to A Tale of Two Cities?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The reversal in that sentence is obvious. Best ---> worst. Do you, as a reader, literally stop to formulate a question after reading this? The question might be too obvious to make us pause. How can a time be both best and worst? We read on for an explanation.

Dickens ended A Tale of Two Cities with a similar tension statement:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The change here is Doing ---> Resting. He doesn't use this technique to raise story questions. The story is over at this point. Instead, he uses it because it's just darn good writing. He wants to keep the reader engaged in the text right to the last words, and he uses this sentence-level reversal to accomplish that.

Once you are aware of this sentence technique, you'll start to see it everywhere.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
--- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (single ---> married, or at least wanting to get married)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
--- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (happy ---> unhappy, but also alike ---> unique)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
--- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (hero ---> supporting role)

Look around you. Flip through some of your favorite stories. Do you see any reversals in sentences? Look in openings in particular, because clever writers tend to rely on this kind of tension to engage the readers very quickly.

Which is why we're talking about this technique now. We're looking at openings, at everything that precedes the inciting incident, and this is one technique guaranteed to drive the reader forward into the meat of your story.

Does anyone have any examples to share?


1 comment:

PatriciaW said...

I wonder how much this is used in commercial contemporary fiction.

All of the examples are classic. I'm wracking my brains to think of a current example.

I like the idea though.