Tension in Writing

Stein on WritingSol Stein writes this is in his chapter on tension:

“Our instinct as human beings is to provide answers, to ease tenion. As writers our job is the opposite, to create tension and not dispel it immediatly….A common fault I’ve observed is that the writer creates a pressing problem for a character and then immediatly relieves the pressure by resolving it. That’s humane but not a writer’s function.”

Stein is right.  In real life we may want to know what is going on, but as readers we hang onto every bit of agony we can grasp.  We live for those awkward moments where we don’t know what’s going to happen.  Stein encourages us to stretch these moments as thin as we can, pulling them until just before they break.  It sounds hard, doesn’t it?  It is.

When coming back to my own story, I realized that I was doing the humane thing.  I got so caught up in getting to the ending where everyone was happy and safe that I just galloped past the tense part.  Which I hate myself for, because the scene I’m talking about is the confrontation between Rahab and Bracken, my favorite part.  So instead of writing about what I had scheduled myself to, I spent this week re-writing the scene on tension.

How do we write tensely?  Stein says that a good method is to use dialogue.  He uses the term “oblique” in his chapter on dialogue.  Here’s an example he gives:

She: How are you?

He: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.

He didn’t answer her question.  It’s obvious something else is on his mind.  This immediately creates tension, because we want to know what’s going on.  But since he doesn’t answer her directly, we have to just guess.  This could stretch on indefinitely, depending on just how distracted he is and how determined she is, until one of them breaks down and the tension is broken.

In my story, Into the Flames, Rahab is very upset because her friends are missing.  She just might be taking this out on Bracken by demanding that he reveal his secret to her.  This, or course, puts him immediately on the defensive.  She doesn’t want to admit that she is worried, and he definitely doesn’t want to admit that he has a secret, much less tell her what it is.  It’s a complex conversation full of oblique dialogue.  How long until one of them breaks?  I don’t know.  They’re both pretty stubborn. I don’t think I have this scene quite were Stein would want it to be, but I’ll continue working on it.

Have you noticed or discovered any good methods for creating tension in other novels?  Do you indulge in tension as much as Stein says that we all do?  Or are you just reading for the happy ending?

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2 Responses to Tension in Writing

  1. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the happy ending….but I loooooove the tension leading up to it. (One of my pet peeves is when the author strings me along with unbearable tension and then refuses me the happy ending — or at least a satisfying one!)

    I’m going to keep this post about tension in the back of my mind until it’s time for me to start working on the second draft of my current WIP. Off the top of my head, I can’t say if I use oblique dialogue so effectively…but if I don’t, I’m gonna have to start!

    • jessie says:

      I know exactly how you feel about unresolved endings. TV shows thrive on it, and yet somehow I still end up watching them, even though I know we’re just going to get strung along indefinitely. And by the way, oblique writing is really hard! I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right.