Back to basics: Tension

I just purchased the book Show Don’t Tell: A Writer’s Guide by William Noble, and wanted to write about something he mentions in the third chapter of his book, tension. Tension is necessary to get a story going and to keep it going. Without it, we are left with pages and pages of descriptions and general chit chat. Now, let’s imagine you are at the movies and the movie goes on and on with wonderful vistas of faraway lands with the main character just wondering through all these places. Not much is really going on outside of the pretty view and the character’s various anecdotes on some general observations about where they are. Now my question to you is, would you stay and watch the entire movie or walk out?

Most people would walk out, and it is the same thing with writing. Without conflict in writing most people will just give up and slam your book shut, never to open it again. This is why some books with “bad writing” as some people term it, still manage to sell well. They have action, they have a plot that doesn’t leave you wondering what you will make for dinner, and they keep that action going until you reach the last page of the book.

Now conflict doesn’t always have to be boiling, in your face, going 100 mph, tension. It can be subtle at first, and built upon as the story progresses. Or it can be like a series of crazy, action sequences from summer, blockbuster films. That is all up to the author, but it does need to exist. I know when I write, I have a tendency to get into a lull where the conflict eases in lieu of side thoughts of my characters. But characterization is my personal forte, so its easy to forget about the overall story sometimes for myself. However, this is no excuse to put out a final work with no tension present throughout the entire work. And if you are like me, you can always make tension that only exists in the mind of one character. Perhaps have them struggling between two decisions in their mind unbeknownst to everyone else. Everyone loves a secret, especially when a decision based on that secret could alter the entire ending of the book. Use your strengths to your advantage!

With that said, I would like everyone else’s views on tension in a novel. Do you like back to back action in your stories or a slow build up of it over the length of the entire book? Let me know below.

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2 thoughts on “Back to basics: Tension

  1. I am split between action and the build up of the tension. Honestly, it depends on the type of book and the story itself. If it’s a historical fiction then I expect a good slow build up .However, if its sci-fi fantasy depending on the story I expect a slow build up but some action to release tension and yet build it further. As long as it is done well and works well with the story but pure back to back action gets old quick.

    • Yes I agree that it depends on the type of story the author is writing. But I also think that the main focus of the story has some impact on how conflict should be handled in a book. If the author is focusing mainly on the locale and world building, more action may be needed to keep the novel from becoming a repetitive sequence of descriptions. Whereas if the focus is more on the characters themselves, you can build up tension slower through showing how the character matures and handles various situations in the process.

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