On our way to a private viewing of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, my friend and I got to talking about writing as craft. Naturally, I brought up the various challenges and solutions I’ve come across while working on my National Novel Writing Month project (ending week three, by the way). Because we both enjoy the absurd, the ambiguous, the terrifying and sublime — all those things wrapped up in the Gothic tradition — the topic of writing tension came up, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.
1. The state of being stretched tight
— a strained state or condition…
2. Mental or emotional strain.
— a relationship between ideas or qualities with conflicting demands or implacations…
It’s a concept that, when thought of in terms of literature or film, signifies that state of feeling ‘wound-up,’ wherein the anticipation of some kind of catharsis or resolution produces an uneasy discomfort and anxiety. On a macro scale, this is the sense in which a novel, over its entirety, seems to build slowly toward the climx — rising action produces tension, the climax releases it, the falling action relaxes.
On a micro scale this may work similarly, but it becomes more ambiguous as to the purpose for the tension. In a chapter or scene, you need to build up succinctly towards more immediate payoffs while simultaneously producing the overarching tension of the narrative as a whole. I talked briefly about Hayot’s Uneven-U concept in my first post, and I think this is applicable to understanding this kind of development pattern for a story.
Jody Hobbs Hesler calls narrative tension a promise. In her estimation, “connection, momentum, and inevitability are intrinsic to narrative tension.” I agree with her. Tension is the promise of a release, like a hot shower after a long camping trip, or the euphoric descent after the climb on a roller coaster.
Scenes should connect, of course, and so should chapters. Elements within a scene should connect as well. These connections produce narrative matrices which entice the reader into the story. Humans are pattern-seeking animals, so when we can draw through-lines between narrative elements, it plugs us into a sense of progression, causality, like something is moving forward.
Speaking of moving forward, connections produce momentum. As the narrative ‘builds,’ so to speak, the sense of approaching something builds. Think about that scene in Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when the party boards the chocolate river boat and descend into the tunnel — you know the scene. Slowly at first they travel, but then as the physical speed of the boat increases, as the music becomes more and more intense, the visual images more and more wild, Wilder’s voice more and more frantic…a sense of speed develops, winding that tension up tighter and tighter until it can be released.
This one is important. The old adage of ‘the gun on the mantle’ rings true, generally, when thinking about tension pay-off in a narrative. Tension itself is inevitable, but its release is also inevitable. This doesn’t have to look the same way for every narrative, nor do I personally think this is a hard rule. If you’ve seen the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return, you know exactly how it feels to be left in tension without release. The point, though, is that the reader — the audience — expects for something to happen, and that expectation is intrinsic to building narrative tension.
I could go on and on about something like this, with no real direction (you saw how I outline). The point being that this is something I’ve now been thinking about quite a bit as I close week three of NaNoWriMo. In self-reflecting on my own style, I can pinpoint three distinct elements that I use within my project to build tension for my readers.
First, I leave clues, hints. Important to any mystery tale, of course. The perspective of the story is in a limited third-person, transitioning from character to character, though we cannot always see the full picture of their minds. I like this, because it allows my characters to lie without telling you, the reader, what the lie is. At least, not right away. I also drop little, physical details — you haven’t read it, but a golf ball appears, something small but significant to the unraveling mystery.
Second, I use my scenes as discrete elements. What I mean is every scene within a chapter hops between narrative perspectives (from this character to that, maybe back in time a minute, to forward). What this allows me to do is vignette little moments of tension…within the scene I can construct an atmosphere, wind the tension, and release it in a mini-climax, a tiny cliffhanger.
I personally love this kind of structure, at least as a writer — my partner says she enjoys it too, on account of many ‘scary stories’ spending a lot of time building the world (and its tension) through mundane activity. I suppose the purpose is to convince the audience that what is happening within the mystery is truly spectacular. But, like Twin Peaks, I prefer to have the audience immediately questioning the nature of the story, the story world, and the characters. An immediate mystery.
Finally, my third element is purely stylistic. It’s something I’ve noticed about my writing that flows somewhat subconsciously as I work. I find that, in moments wherein the momentum is ramping up, the tension is becoming tighter, approaching that small release in the scene, my prose transforms from its more birds-eye view to a sensational view. Sentence structure is important — longer sentences turn to short, staccato ones. Or transversely, the sentences run-on, quickening and out of breath. The full picture becomes limited and sensations are highlighted. Through the characters’ anxiety in this tension the view becomes telescopic. It focuses on a single word — hot — or a single image — the porcelain tile. There are people who’ve studied the minutiae of storytelling conventions and have given names to what I am trying to describe, I’m sure, though for me it is simply that hitting the release is like a quickening; once it’s reached, a lengthening.
I am at 35,838 words. Some days are easier to write than others. Yesterday was difficult — I got the Moderna booster for the COVID-19 vaccine, which dropped me like a sack. Still, I try to write a little bit everyday. Some days I write a lot a bit. I’m excited to be coming up to four-fifths finished, though I think the story itself has a little more than 50,000 words. Thanks for reading, as always!
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