Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Little About Tension

Tension (and/or suspense) is a key element in storytelling. It is what keeps a reader turning pages past their bedtime. According to Gary Provost, tension is "a cord or series of cords that stretch across every paragraph you write".
Tension is the "anticipation and dread" factor in your story. Your readers look forward to the consequences of your character's action and the uncertainty surrounding those consequences. Tension creates dread. Will the young soldier die trying to save his comrade? Will the Lady lose her reputation and be forced into a convent? How will an unemployed single mother take care of her children? Without uncertainty present, without tension, no reader is going to be hooked on your story.

One way to create tension is to use "tense" words. Provost suggests going through your manuscript and looking for places you can create tension by using words of delay, words that imply fear, words of danger, and words of urgency.

Below is an example of a paragraph I wrote which had some suspense. Then, I rewrote it with a few word changes as Provost suggests. The word choice definitely improved the tension.

Original:"She stopped at the sight of the broken gate, its rusty hinges damaged. He had come this way. Had he found the vault? She hurried past the broken gate and moved into the shadows. It was important she reach the vault before he learned the truth about her."

Revision:"She froze at the sight of the broken gate, its rusty hinges ripped loose. He had come this way. Had he found the vault? She rushed past the broken gate and stole into the shadows. It was critical she reach the vault before he discovered the truth about her."

Provost suggests going through your manuscript and looking for places where word choice can increase the tension in your story

Notes On Premise

All the short stories I've written have been what I call "Premise Based". I came up with the premise and built the story around it. Novels also have premises and a novel that stays true to its premise is usually a tightly-constructed story.

For starters, premise is simple and all stories have one. It is not a complicated, hard-to-understand literary concept as some writers think. Also, it is doesn't have to be a universal truth.

A premise is a one-line explanation of your story. You can go with one condition leads to another. Or use a simple sentence that contains three things: character, conflict and resolution. Character is a trait, bad or good, such as jealousy, kindness, courage, fear. Conflict is expressed by using "leads to". The resolution of the premise can be whatever you want to prove in your story. The premise I used for The Yard Sale was "an act of kindness leads to a great reward".
In the Handbook of Short Story Writing, Dennis Whitcomb states: "The purpose of a premise is that it insures a central conflict and gives you a path to follow".

Here are some examples of premise:Ambition leads to failure at home.Selfishness leads to happiness.Cleverness leads to wealth.Revenge leads to heartache. To elaborate on one of them, we'll go with revenge leads to heartache. Jenny sees her lover with another woman! She decides to get back at him by seducing his half-brother, whom he has always hated. First, she has to win the affection of the half-brother, who is a ill-tempered hermit. Her revenge fails when she falls for the half-brother and then finds out she had been wrong all along about her lover, who had only been helping out a co-worker, who wanted to get back at a guy who'd dumped her. When the two brothers find out what Jenny's plan was, neither of them want her, thus leading to heartache. So this story proves revenge leads to heartache. Of course, you can give Jenny a happy ending as she swears off of revenge forever and gets the man she loves!