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Feb 05, 2019 13:44:07

Building tension

by @gabrielgreco PATRON | 400 words | 🐣 | 100💌

Gabriel Greco

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Total posts: 100💌
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A key ingredient in any good story is the spooled tension threading its way around the plot, dialogue, and narrative. The best of authors pull that line so tight you might find yourself feeling anxious whenever you put the book down or pick it up again.  You want to ignore it, but a part of you is hopping from one leg to the other saying, "Oh gawd, I can see the train crash coming, but I can't look away." And, as the tension mounts, you find that, in spite of yourself, your eyes have now developed a tendency to skip ahead half a sentence or two with increasing frequency. 

It's a predictable arch in many ways, although it's only after writing a couple of my own dingy little stories I'm starting to get it. 

How does it work?

One. You have to understand there is a conflict somewhere. And that this conflict will yield a climax. By conflict I don't mean the celebrated battle between good and evil in its never-ending embodiment - though this does qualify, of course. A conflict could be the moral dilemma between betrayal and loyalty, the power of will versus impulsiveness, or, the car stuck in the middle of a railway crossing. 

Two. The tone must be set early on. Early enough that even if the reader is not told, explicitly, he can understand it's there. In this New Yorker article by Joan Didion, she discusses Hemingway's mastery of tension and the way he employs it through the omission of certain words. How, by simply omitting 'the' from a sentence, he changes the paragraph's pacing and the reader understands the subtle foreshadowing of things to come. She says, it 'casts a chill' and indeed, that's exactly what you feel. And chills, when we are warm and comfortable, with a book in our hands, tell us a lot more than words can. 

Three. The narrative must move in such a way as to reinforce the impossible-to-avoid-climax as we approach it. We are no longer omitting words to 'cast a chill' we are now alluding to the obvious and inevitable confrontation. Maybe we are spelling it out while omitting the key details a reader is sure to wonder about. It's not just technique, it's an art. It's the difference between good and great. And you want to be great, don't you?
I do.




  • 1

    @gabrielgreco This was good. I think the 200wad platform has been really helpful in all sorts of ways, keeping that tension from one 200-some word entry to the next being one of them. (Also: pacing.) I'm also enjoying, in my own 200wad fiction writing, figuring it out as I go along in one 200 (sometimes 400) word chunk at a time. I'm experiencing the same tension, spread out over days. (Also: attainable, given my hectic schedule.) I wonder if any audience is also experiencing it, or have I lost them already? Does it read differently now as a serial than it might once it's done and is just a short story consumable in one sitting? Probably, and it won't have as much of that tension in the latter form.

    Daniel Miller avatar Daniel Miller | Feb 05, 2019 21:09:34
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      @danielmiller Good question. I tend to think it's easier to get into it when you have it all in front of you, but at the same time think of how stories used to be serialized in magazines. I suppose the difference now is there is so much content thrown at us it's not like we're spending our spare time pining for the next installment.

      Gabriel Greco avatar Gabriel Greco | Feb 06, 2019 21:51:37
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    @gabrielgreco -- YES YES - Great is what I am going for.. :)
    Nicely written... Keep giving me this awesome tips and I may just drop everything else and start on fiction. I find that the hardest and yet to start on the challenge my brother gave me to write one.

    Keni avatar Keni | Feb 05, 2019 10:00:50
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      @keni Here's the best part, you don't have to drop everything, just start on it already :)

      Gabriel Greco avatar Gabriel Greco | Feb 06, 2019 21:52:06
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      @gabrielgreco - Hmmm... I like the sound of abandon everything for writing. Become the starving artist.. There is a romantic sound to it all. It will make for a very interesting memoir :) And you get the credits.

      Keni avatar Keni | Feb 06, 2019 21:49:04
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