May 21, 2012

Tension and Micro-Tension in Fiction

I've recently begun to understand what makes one work of fiction a "page turner" and another not.  Tension is almost as critical to a novel or short story as conflict.  Conflict gives the characters something important to do, and a reason to grow and change (or not).  Tension raises the reader's curiosity and encourages the reader to stick with the story. 

It's possible to create tension in a number of ways.  In passages that focus primarily on a character's thoughts, you can create tension by showing that the character has two conflicting or contrasting emotions about the same thing.  For example:

Jane removed the party supplies from the shopping cart and placed them on the checkout counter.  Everything was in place now.  Alex would have the best birthday party ever.  He had been looking forward to it for weeks. He was going to be so happy.  The thought brought a smile to her face. 

She began to shudder, and then quickly stopped herself. "Maybe it won't be bad this time.  If I can keep the focus on Alex, make him the center of attention, it will be OK." 

Chances are, you felt a little tension there.  You're probably wondering why Jane is apprehensive about her son's birthday party.  Shouldn't that be a happy occasion?  What happened "the last time" that caused such fear?  Were there party goers who got out of control?  Was Alex injured somehow, or did he injure other guests?  Or did something happen to Jane?  Were the other mothers at the party critical of her, her parenting, or her child?  You're likely to keep reading to get the answer to such questions. 

The tension created here probably won't carry through the entire story.  At some point, you'll have to show readers why Jane is worried.  Once you do, this tension will evaporate.  At that point, you'll need to build some new tension to replace it.  Perhaps little Alex catches a glimpse of fear on her face as the guests begin to arrive, and she struggles to hide it from him.  She knows that if he is worried about her, he won't enjoy himself – and she'll feel like the party failed if that happens.

You can build tension into almost any part of your story.  In a conversation, one character may be happy about something that another character finds depressing or infuriating.  In a description of setting, you might be painting the image of an ideal tropical beach, while depicting the character's reaction to the scene as one of disgust or fear.  The key is to raise questions in the mind of the reader that generate a desire to reader further, to find out why things aren't matching up to their expectations.  As they keep reading, they keep turning pages, and you keep them immersed in the story.

May 2, 2012

Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Over the last few years, I've read several writing books.  Many of them contained advice that boiled down to "Read this passage from a famous book.  Now do something like that."  As well-intentioned as those authors may have been, their advice wasn't very useful.  It's like teaching someone to drive by showing them the cockpit video from a NASCAR race and telling them to "do what that person's doing".  Larry Brooks' Story Engineering is NOT one of those books.

The book starts off a bit preachy, repeatedly explaining that if you don't do what Brooks recommends, your chances of being published (or just writing a good novel) will be greatly reduced.  This point is made repeatedly throughout the book.  That could be off-putting for some readers, but I recommend skimming those parts when you encounter them.  The rest of the material you find in the book will more than balance things out.

At a very high level, Brooks recommends a four-part story format.  While this sounds dangerously like a formula, it's really not. It's just a basic structure to help you organize the story you're trying to tell.  In order to fit this into a blog post, I'm intentionally over-simplifying the structure, and describing it as a standard "hero/villain" story where two people are in conflict over something.  Just be aware that this is explained far better, and in far more detail, in the book.
  1. The Setup – Introduces the hero and shows us what his life is like before the villain enters the picture.  We learn what the hero has at stake, what his inner demons are, and his point of view.  It ends with the hero becoming aware of the opposition and realizing that action should be taken.
  2. The Response – The hero now has a purpose or a "quest" to undertake.  He responds to this, perhaps by making a decision (or wrestling with indecision).  He's hiding, strategizing, planning, observing, recruiting help, and getting ready to take action.  It ends with the hero ready to take action, and go on the offensive.
  3. The Attack – The hero starts trying to set things right.  But things aren't static on the villain's side.  The hero learns that the opposition is stronger than he thought.  He suffers a defeat or two.  It ends with a revelation or a proverbial new door opening, empowering the hero with the weapon or knowledge needed to finally win.
  4. The Resolution – The hero summons the strength and resources to finally reach his goal.  The villain is vanquished, and all the loose ends are tied up.
Brooks explains how to adapt this four-part structure to almost any story you want to tell.  He also provides examples of how other authors, without knowing it, are using this basic structure in their books.

Earlier, I posted an article on creating three-dimensional characters.  It was derived from what I learned in Story Engineering.

The bottom line?  I learned more from this book about story planning, story structure, characterization, and foreshadowing than I have from any other writing book I've read.  It's helped me to re-evaluate the three novels I've written to date, and understand why I was so disappointed with each of them.  I even have ideas for making them (and novel #4) better.  I definitely recommend this book.