16 February 2011

Doing laundry probably doesn't count as acute tension either.

Guys guys guys let’s talk TECHNIQUE today.
(I know it’s been forever since my last post, shut up)
I want to introduce you to the idea of tension.
I don’t mean like, aww man, they’re doing some sports game and the timer’s out and can they get the last goal?
Actually, nevermind, that works pretty well.
But what I mean is that your story is fueled by tension. Something has to be at stake, something’s amiss, the reader needs to feel like this needs to be rectified. The story has to move along, and it’s tension that drives it.
That much is obvious. You knew that.

The thing that we need to talk about is types of tension. You see, there are two:

Acute Tension
This is probably the first sort you thought of (unless you’re an angst writer, we’ll get to that in a moment). This is something that’s happening right now, it’s got action and stuff happening and all that. Using the example, this is the sports game. Can they win it?

Chronic Tension
This is the subtler type of tension. Like the name implies, this is the tension that, chances are, have been going on for a long time—maybe even before your story began. These are the worries that eat away at your character’s mind, the mental blocks that keep him from kicking that winning sports goal (Can we tell I’m talking out of my ass with the sports? Write what you know, kids!). Is he pining over his lost love? Does he have daddy issues? Is he convinced he’s a total loser and subconsciously sabotaging himself? That sort of thing.

Every story needs BOTH of these in appropriate amounts. Acute tension is what keeps the story moving and keeps it from being boring, and chronic tension is what allows us to connect with the characters and relate to them. An imbalance in either leads to certain disaster.
Without enough chronic tension, the story is just a shallow string of events that the reader has no investment or interest in. Maybe he’ll be interested in what happens next, but he won’t bat an eye when you kill off that beloved love interest. This is a common pitfall of first-time writers and people who watch too many bad action movies.
Without enough acute tension, your story just sits there. Remember what I was saying about angst writers? This is where they fail. “Angst” stories tend to revolve around some character sitting around doing nothing but think to himself about how HORRIBLE and DEPRESSING things are. Nothing happens. He just sits there. Maybe if we’re lucky he’ll go walk to the store or kill himself at the end. Either way, it’s boring as shit. This is a pitfall of moody teenagers and artsy college students who don’t know better.

Furthermore, the end of the story should resolve both tensions in a satisfying way. It’s really preferred that the resolution is able to tie the two tensions together somehow. Say, by winning the sports game, our main character learns his own self-worth, gains the attention of his love, and earns his father’s approval. Satisfying! … Well, hopefully. That’s a pretty trite example, I know, but I came up with it off the top of my head so leave me alone.

It doesn’t matter which tension you come up with first, I’ve certainly written enough that I have my share of stories where I came up with the acute tension first, or the chronic, or both at once. Just make sure they’re both there and accounted for by the time you call it done.

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