|The conflict of the waves must face the tension of an unmovable lighthouse.|
By Rachel Hauck
I think they’ll put on my tombstone, “She was passionate about tension in story!”
I’m starting to think tension is one of THE hardest elements to master. Because I read so many good books that lack it.
With tension, I daresay they could’ve been GREAT books.
There’s a difference between conflict and tension.
It’s easy to mistake the two. Add in “action” and it seems writers can really get lost in the tension v. conflict v. action swirl.
Have any of you watched America Ninja Warrior? If not, check it out on Sunday and Monday nights. Or hit up a few episodes on Youtube.
Contestants must man-handle their way across a complicated obstacle course to hit the finish buzzer and win a chance to move to the next round.
And ultimately win the crown of top America Ninja Warrior.
The course contains six or seven obstacles, each one more difficult than the last.
The warrior must be smart about his strength and energy if he wants to endure to the end.
Each obstacle on the course is conflict.
The process of making it to the end, “Will he do it?” is called tension.
After each obstacle is complete, the conflict is over. He did it. Or he failed and fell. Either way, he can breath out for a second.
If he’s moving on, the tension remains. He has two or three or four obstacles yet to face.
The producers know the power of story tension because they develop back story video on some of the more interesting contestants.
They want the viewers to care. They want us to see what it took for that particular contestant to run the course.
This is how you must construct your stories.
With an over all goal for the protagonist met by obstacles with increasing difficulty. To create interesting back story that will inch by inch be revealed throughout the story.
Now, if you’ve watched Ninja Warrior before, and the episode airing is a rerun, what happens to the tension?
Gone! You already know what happens. (This is often the problem with prologues. The writer tells us what happened in the past and thus ruins the tension.)
So what kills tension? Knowledge.
This is where authors struggle. I struggle! Preaching to myself here.
I end up letting the reader in on the end game. I TELL them what’s going to happen, broadcasting it in the prose or dialog.
The conflict remains, meaning stuff happens, people disagree, actions meet with setbacks, but the tension is gone.
The reader doesn’t care if the boy gets the girl, or if the super cop saves the day because we already know they will.
And we have a good idea of why and how.
To be fair, we know romances must end with an HEA. And the super cop has to solve his case and catch the bad guy, but what about the internal journey?
Will she forget her fiancé who died in Afghanistan? Will he accept that his father abandoned him and being the angry cop hurts more than it helps?
Tension can be seen in the “want” of the protagonist. What does she want?
Conflict is the events that poke at the want. It’s the call to her inner wound demanding that she face her dark past.
Conflict — external journey.
Tension — internal journey.
You can have conflict without tension. Yep! But it makes a weak story.
To make the conflict count, it must get in the way of what the character wants!
Let’s look at The Patriot.
Benjamin Martin wants to avoid war at all cost. Why? He has a very dark past. We’re not sure why in the beginning but we get a hint when his son finds his uniform and tomahawk in the trunk.
Martin’s reaction is terse as he demands his son put them away.
We also see a hint of his past when he argues with his oder son about joining the militia.
These events are conflict. Benjamin is in conflict with younger son and Gabriel. But without the tension of “I’m not going to war and I have my reasons,” the conflict is meaningless.
Does that make sense?
Let’s go a step further.
If Benjamin told Gabriel up front, “I don’t want to go to war because of what happened in Ft. Wilderness,” the tension would’ve popped.
So now we know why. Okay… But war is still hell, so we root for him but now we know his secret and really, it’s not as interesting.
Going to war and fighting honorably is the thing that heals Benjamin’s wound. IF he told Gab up front, from an unhealed place, image the scene where Gab finally gets the truth out of him.
“So, Ft. Wilderness, you were a bad dude.”
“Yep, but look at me now, fighting with honor.”
Ack! So anti-climactic.
Part of the story tension is between father and son, letting Gabriel grow up and be his own man. Tell him the story is Benjamin seeing that his son is a man.
I was reading a book not long ago and the heroine had no apparent goals. Stuff happened, but as I finished the book, I wasn’t sure what she really wanted. Did she achieve her goal? I don’t know.
And I kind of didn’t care about her.
Tension is about the deep inner journey that the protagonist is hiding.
Don’t let it all out in the first few chapters.
Hold stuff back.
That’s the essence of good tension.
Now, go write brilliant tension.