Turning Up the Tension
It's not obvious, but the title for today's blog is a sort-of twofer. I want to talk about adding tension to your stories (or mine, for that matter); this is the main meaning of the title. Also, I am coming up on my one-year anniversary as a writer, and I'm both excited and more than a little discombobulated. I'm not quite ready to do an official one-year-milestone type post, but I do want to talk about (you guessed it) How I Feel. Or rather--Some of the Things It's (Hopefully) Normal to Feel as a New Writer After a Year or so of Chasing Serious Success. Phew.
But first, the actual craft-related part of the blog.
I've been reading/critiquing a lot of stories lately where the worldbuilding, characterization, and so on are really good, but the stories themselves are only so-so. Mostly this relates to a lack of tension in the story, a lack of any reason for me to cheer for the protagonist. The writer has been so focused on describing what happens that they forget to fully explain why. And it's the why that is truly important.
This is actually easy to do; I've done it many times myself. I think it's one of the drawbacks of discovery writing (vs outlining). I rarely have anything more than a vague idea what's going to happen next in my stories. Which is fine, as far as getting the basic story and ideas down. And I rarely feel like my characters are lacking in emotional depth or expression. All of the descriptions are there. But sometimes the other crucial bit isn't, the bit that makes the reader give a damn.
A definition: Story -- a story is an event or series of events in which one or more characters change.
The key thing here is that the characters have to change. Not the situation. It isn't enough for the hero to save the world, or get eaten by the monster, or discover the real murderer. The hero has to grow as a person, to not just be affected by events, not just have their agency change the course of events, but have their agency be a direct result of their own inner realizations, revelations, and adjustments.
A story is not stuff that happens, is not stuff that happens to a sympathetic character, is not stuff that a sympathetic character does. It's stuff that changes a character while a character simultaneously changes it. Tension arises because we sympathize with the character, we know the character is facing an obstacle they cannot overcome, and we know that if they could just (learn to) X they might have a chance. Even if X costs them Y.
It's not enough for them to get lucky, or win through cleverness or toughness or any other quality they possessed at the outset of the story. The person they are at the beginning of the story cannot be capable of winning as-is. It's not enough for them to take losses. They must take losses deliberately, choosing them. Agency + Growth + Sacrifice = A Victory About Which the Reader Gives a Damn.
One of the things I am doing now (have learned how to do via participation in critique groups) is going back over my completed stories and trying to isolate all these things. Who is the protag (usually an easy question)? Who is the antagonist? What is the conflict? How does the protag change? What do they lose? What do they gain? When does the real story begin and end? (More on this last one in another column, maybe.)
On the other side of the things, the How I Feel side, I am both impressed and annoyed with myself. Less than a year ago, I had no clue how to write a story, period. As in, I couldn't even come up with a few characters and a plot. I had no ideas. Nothing. I've come a long way since then. I have ideas coming out my wazoo. I have no shortage of interesting characters and events to write about. And, if I daresay, I have at least a basic grasp of grammar and style.
But, looking back on what I've written so far, it so often comes up woefully short in that most crucial of areas--being interesting to anyone but me, ie storytelling skill. I am convinced it's not enough to be an excellent writer (although that is still a goal worth striving for), but that I have to become an excellent storyteller as well. And the more I learn, the more I realize just how much there is to learn, and how far I have to go. Even worse: the more I try to accomplish with my stories, the more I put into them, the more difficult they are to write.
Isn't this stuff supposed to get easier as I go along? What a gyp. And yet, I've come to far to quit now. Not only is all the effort I've expended so far on the line (a not inconsiderable amount of skull-sweat), I've seen the potential in myself to be so much more than I am. My future is at stake, the me that I wish to be. And the only thing holding me back is my own inertia (read--laziness).
In other words: If I continue to work at it (agency) and I improve as a storyteller (growth) and I let go of all those other things--often so much more entertaining--that I want to do with my time (sacrifice) = I just might win. And maybe you, or maybe the me that watches me, the inner me that both judges and condones, might be moved enough by my story to cheer me on. To give a damn.
Media breakdown - I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close last night. It was an absolute tear-jerker from start to finish. I really liked it, and I highly recommend watching it (preferably with your support group in place.) It was over-the-top emotionally in all sorts of ways (only about 50% on Rotten Tomatoes), so be forewarned. I didn't like that it was based around 9/11, because I hate the "9/11 changed everything" political meme that has destroyed our country, but the film was only political by omission (no mention of the 9/11 truth movement or any other dissent, for starters). Still very much worth watching.
And that's all I've got for today. See you guys next week.