tension in fiction

The Ultimate Spoiler

When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.

Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.

As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.

When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.

How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once.  Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.

Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.

No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!

This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.

Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.

Arrows 1


Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.



Hooks, Tics and Tension

When I read a work in progress presented for critique, I am a different sort of reader than when I read a completed book for entertainment. As a critiquer, I am looking for things to critique — awkward dialogue, improbable situations, confusing structure and so on. As a regular reader, I’m not consciously looking for anything, just going with the flow of the narrative wherever it takes me. Only if that flow is interrupted or destroyed do I notice the actual writing, and even then I don’t think about it much but simply stop reading.

If a piece of writing is effective, the casual reader doesn’t have to think about it, any more than someone luxuriating in a hot tub has to think about the plumbing. Most writers I know, myself included, write for that ideal reader, making the narrative flow easily to help them create a mind-movie.

But before there’s a casual reader, there are non-casual ones, aren’t there? Fellow writers in critique groups, test readers, and (if the work becomes a submission), publishers’ readers or editors. They resist being carried along. The first two are on the lookout for bumps or snags, and the gatekeepers are looking for reasons to throw the manuscript onto the “rejects” pile and move on to the next one.

I touched on tics a few posts ago, when I mentioned a recommendation to target the word “that,” removing as many instances of it as possible because in many cases it is redundant and slows down the flow. I have read similar suggestions about other words: only, just, still, some, had (as in the much-maligned past perfect) and was. The trouble is that if you read with the target word in mind, that word is all you see; the piece of writing becomes otherwise meaningless. It’s sort of like the dripping tap or the ticking clock — once the sound has claimed your attention, it’s all you can hear. The best way to look for any of these suspect words would be with the Find feature in Word, which lets you hop from one instance of a word to the next and decide whether it’s needed. But if you are doing a general read-through, don’t focus on a specific word.

So much for tics.  How about hooks? Writers are told that to keep a reader’s interest they must “plant a hook” at the beginning of a novel and at the end of every chapter until the work bristles with them, like a longline fishing setup from which a reader cannot possibly escape. The trouble is that not every type of writing lends itself to the hook-planting technique. Quite often a bridge or a winding path is more appropriate, or an alluring vista in the distance. I suspect the whole hook business comes from readers who must get through dozens or hundreds of submissions from the slush pile. To keep them interested, hooks are absolutely essential — no hook, no luck.  Many casual readers, I think, don’t need hooks everywhere, only writing that’s easy to read (in the sense of “flow”), punctuated with instances of greater intensity (action, tension, sex or transcendence) at regular intervals. These may be called hooks, I suppose, but in that case we may need a different term for devices that generate readers’ interest.

Finally, tension. At a recent critiquing session, I was told that one of my scenes lacked tension. I made things too easy for my characters and they needed to experience more difficulties. Well, OK, maybe so. Rewriting, I added a few obstacles and disconcerting moments. I’m aware of the advice to “Torture your characters. Make life really hard for them, because that’s what makes a good read.” Indeed, but like any other fictional devices, the obstacles must be plausible and contribute to the plot. Traps set for their own sake may well snap down on the writer if they lengthen the story too much or create a lot of pointless detours.

What’s this post about, really? Partially it’s me venting my annoyance at the suggestion that a piece of my writing is flaccid. More justifiably, it’s me questioning another set of Rules for Writers. Show me a rule and I’m inclined to quibble with it. Creative writing isn’t something you can do by slavishly following a set of rules, like a paint-by-number. Come to think of it, visual artists don’t seem to bother much with rules any more. It’s true that some artists are more successful than others, but that’s true for us writers too. We make our choices and take the consequences depending on our individual situations. If I had a publisher’s team behind me, investing their time and treasure in marketing my work, I would have a real incentive to follow whatever rules they came up with. But I don’t, so I can write things like the foregoing with impunity (I hope).