Monday, October 22, 2012

On what building tension in fiction really means

Shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho where a murderer's advances are expected to be seen in time but aren't and the heroine you expect to be there the entire movie is killed early.

When you start out in writing you frequently hear people say that there needs to be tension in the story every step of the way. And sometimes you're left wondering just what they mean by tension. Other times you're led to believe that tension equals drama which means highlighting all the things that go wrong for the characters, big or small, and potentially writing almost solely on such things as murders, battles, betrayals, illness, heart-break, kidnappings and so on and so forth. In fact, on hearing about tension many of us assume it comes from the dark side of life only and tension denotes tense muscles, tense thoughts, anxiety and an expectation of bad things to come.

The only word in that last sentence you should pay attention to though, if you're a writer, is expectation. In creating fiction tension is more often than not produced by building up audience expectations over either the long or short term before revealing the answers, answers that hopefully lead to more expectations. There is as much tension in the building up of a slapstick joke as there is in the slow creeping of a serial killer towards a victim. The audience either understands what's coming or believes it does, only to be shocked or amused by what actually happens. What happens can be unexpected or according to their expectations and it almost doesn't matter which, as long as the tension through expectations has been adequately built. Without such expectation in the audience nearly all will just read or watch on through with little reaction other than "I knew that was coming". If you're lucky. If not, then the book, comic, TV show or movie etc. will be dropped as it is too boring.

Character is acting as shy and engaged as expected and then slapstick ensues.

Take a note from slasher films. You honestly know exactly what's going to happen. Teens are going to bite it, especially if they've had sex. The blond will scream and scream as she's knifed to death in bloody Hitchcock style (now in full colour). The victims will be predominantly female and the males running about trying to save the day will be shown up for the fools they are. And at the end there's a high probability that the killer will either get away with it or do a last minute pop up to be killed all over again. So. You know the story. Slashers be slashers. Yet there are good ones and bad ones, ones that make you laugh hysterically the whole way through and others that make you jump in your seat over and over again. All with relatively the same plot. What makes the good ones stand out? The amount of time and effort that goes into building audience expectations, whether the resulting tension focuses on the slapstick aspect or the horror.

You might read this and say, "Well, that's nice but how do I translate that into writing light-hearted comedy or literature or chic-lit?". The same principle applies really, it is just that the material you're working with differs. Now, instead of focusing on the knife and the killer's slow advance towards the shower curtain you focus on the bubble of conversation/argument as it pulls towards a punchline, the creation of behaviour patterns along with hints that things are all about to be destroyed, the growing discord between two or more groups as they attempt to solve a mystery or thwart those solving it, and so on.

There doesn't have to be a death, a breakup or the destruction of a family in the creation of tension. And you really don't need a serial killer, which has now become the easiest way anyone can write a story with tension. If you think I'm lying then pay attention to just how many serial killers are popping up in fiction nowadays compared to 10 years ago. There's been a serial killer revolution all based on the fact that serial killers provide drama which is tension producing and fits the bill of that demand all producers and editors have of "we need some tension here!". It is easy to go for the dark side of things when building tension but do keep in mind that a light-hearted story has tension in it and it takes skill to create such tension. All because without tension through building expectations there's no laughter, there's no freedom in discovering something unexpected, there's no thunderclap of realisation in putting together the puzzle pieces in an instant.

The best works, whether light or dark in nature, set you up, make you believe you know what's coming and then sneak in something completely unexpected. They don't revel in the darkness only and feed you just what you expect. Such stories wear after a while as the audience never gets either a glimpse that everything will end happily or a spoonful of something different. Same goes for overly gushy romances actually. The audience never gets a hint of what would happen in real life if such things occurred and gets annoyed with the cute, cuddly, flowered, glitzy and perfectly made up everything in the stories - be it the people or the world or the relationships. The best horrors break expectations and the best romances too. And that's after they set you up to expect certain things either through ads, through character stereotypes or through plot line development. Alternatively, you can go the extra mile of creating something no-one's ever come across before, which is quite hard to do so maybe settle for something that's by and large never been seen before (see note).

And just for fun: The characters are dressed and presented as expected and then you're hit with the language.

When you remove the character descriptions so only the motivations remain, sift away all the landscape extras and just write the general plot line a lot of stories read the same or similar to each other. That nothing is truly original and everything is built upon something is just the nature of how human's build and develop ideas. To write a good story is to make large developments upon the old, to write an average story is to make few developments and to write a bad one is to make no developments or actually actively destroy the foundations already there. 

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