Sunday, March 4, 2007

Tension equals good writing


It's been a tense week, but I've survived the five 13+ hour night shifts at the hospital where I work as a charge nurse on a cardiac unit. I had to do two extra shifts as we were really short staffed. It started off rough when I had to defibrillate (you know, shock with the paddles) a patient next door to my own patient three times during a code blue. Thankfully, after the third shock he came back, but it set the tone for a stressful week. I can't complain too much though. Everything worked out great. No one died and I got 24 hours of overtime.

Tension is the topic of this post. We all have it in our lives, but do we have it in our fiction writing? I was critiquing a story for a friend--and thinking of the story I just wrote (The Pirate Witch), and tension turned out to be a key issue in both cases.

Tension on every page should be a writer's mantra--if they want the reader to keep reading. Low tension books are the ones that you can put down any time you want. The high tension books are the ones that drag you forward until two a.m. and don't let you sleep. High tension books are page turners, which is what I'm going for. Sure, there can be books with little tension, but I'd prefer not to read or write them.

Tension also means conflict. Lots of tension/conflict are essential to good fiction writing, in my opinion. I learned this pearl of wisdom from the many writing books I've read, but mostly from my friend Brad Beaulieu. He's a great writer, published, award winning and has the knack for extremely helpful critiques. He makes my work so much better.

Invariabley, he tells me to add tension, to turn the thumb-screws on my character until they cry for mercy. As writers, unconsciosly, we want to be nice to our characters and our readers. We don't want them to suffer. We write things like: The dragon was about to eat the baby--but Sir Roger knew he could easily save the poor child.

Wrong. The first line was tense, then we let the pressure off with--but Sir Roger knew he could easily save the poor child. Don't do that. Be better than me on many of my first drafts. Almost never let off the pressure if you want the reader to keep reading. Build the tension until the climax of the chapter or story, then have Sir Roger save the baby, but not until the last moment.

Keep up the heat on your characters. Torture them, beat them up, make them suffer pain and guilt. Do all that you can to keep conflict going. Don't have everyone be nice to them. Have the squire give the knight some bad attitude. Have the bad guys look like they're about to win until the very end.

Tension on every page is my point. Read more about this in any book on how to write good fiction. I recommend How to Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey.

Good luck writing and remember to keep the tension high--if you want them to keep reading.


Unknown said...

Ah! Tension! Speaking of torturing your characters, have you read Shadowfall by James Clemens? If not...might be a good reference of how to really torture your poor characters.

And that's crazy for your hours at the hospital :S. Good nobody died though, means you were doing your job well!

Kelly Swails said...

Seriously, it's always good when someone doesn't die at work.

Paul Genesse said...


I love James Clemens. He's a great writer, though I haven't read Shadowfall. I need to check it out and add it to my impossibly tall pile of books that I'm supposed to be reading. Anyway, tension is good.