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Monday, November 4, 2019

Accidentally Undercutting Tension (and How to Stop)

Tension and conflict are two different things. And before I get into this writing problem I encounter from time to time, I need to make sure we are all on the same page.

Conflict: This is when problems are happening.

Tension: This is the potential for problems to happen.

In a lot of ways, tension is actually more powerful than conflict, because the anticipation draws the audience in--the worry or fear that something might happen. Jumpy, scary movies are great at dishing out the tension. A character moves slowly through a dark area and the music and camera angles ramp up tension to the point that we are clawing into our seats or pulling our blankets up to our eyes.

It's entirely possible to have tension without conflict, and conflict without tension. For more on tension vs. conflict, check out my post on it.

Every once in a while, I run into a manuscript that is undercutting tension, accidentally. And sometimes that manuscript is even my own.

I sometimes feel like tension is one of the lifebloods of a powerful story. Without it, it's harder for the audience to get invested, it's harder for readers to turn the pages, it's harder for the story to be powerful. All good stories need some tension.

But sometimes as writers, we undercut the tension in our own story and zap it out of existence, on accident.

For example, we might have one character afraid that something bad is going to happen to them tomorrow, and this creates tension. What if something bad does happen tomorrow? But just after we build up the tension on the page, we have another character come in and explain why that bad thing won't ever happen tomorrow, and the first character believes it. The tension is suddenly gone.

In a passage, it might read something like this. (And this is just a quick, rough example to illustrate the point.)

Timmy rocked back and forth on his seat at the dinner table. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and he felt sure that Jacob, the schoolyard bully, would want to knock the living daylights out of him; Timmy had put a spider in Jacob's desk at the end of last year, and Jacob had found it just before the final bell. With the whole summer break, Jacob had to have figured out it was Timmy.

Jacob had fists like bricks, and Timmy could already imagine the mean, boar-like look Jacob got in his eyes whenever he was about to wallop someone. Timmy had hoped to register for the science fair this year, but after tomorrow, he'd be lucky if he could register for the next grade. He was doomed.

"You haven't touched any of your food." His mom had walked back into the kitchen to check on him. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Mom . . . what if Jacob beats me up tomorrow?" Timmy managed to ask.

"That won't happen," Mom said.

"Why not?"

"Because Jacob moved at the beginning of summer, remember? You never have to worry about him again."

Timmy immediately relaxed. That's right. Jacob had moved. How could he have forgotten? Timmy felt silly for having gotten all worked up over nothing.

He ate a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

This passage seems rather harmless, right? And certainly it would be fine in some stories. But imagine it was the only tension related to the first day of school--which is still pages and pages away. There is nothing else in the text that Timmy hopes or fears for, for the first day of school. So we don't really feel any tension, from now until then, so we don't really feel invested in reading about his first day. We cut off the tension too early. Even if Jacob did move, it may have been better for Timmy to not realize that until he was in recess--as long as there was something else to hope or fear about soon after that. We undercut the story's tension.

The tension was cut off too early.


Tension ends just before new tension.

Another way this is a problem, is if the writer does this sort of thing over and over again. Builds up tension, and then cuts it down to nothing, or nearly nothing, soon after. Eventually, whenever tension arises, the audience will subconsciously assume nothing significant will actually come of it . . . which will eventually result in them not even feeling the tension the writer is trying to put on the page.

Here the writer is undercutting tension over and over again. (And too early.)

Tension doesn't have to lead to conflict all the time, but it should lead to something significant much of the time. Otherwise it feels like "false tension"--just a trick the writer is using to try to make the audience afraid over nothing. And if it never leads to any conflict, then it's going to lose its impact.

Some people in the writing world believe that tension should always lead to conflict, but if you have that perspective, you really miss out on great tension opportunities, and juicy hooks.

Just because the tension doesn't always lead to a conflict doesn't mean you undercut it. The tension might lead to a surprising outcome, twist, or revelation. It might lead to a different, bigger conflict.

Sometimes the tension might lead to nothing substantial, but if that's the case, there must be other forms of tension also in play, or a new one that comes right after.

So imagine that Timmy is afraid of Jacob beating him up, clear until he arrives at the playground and realizes Jacob has moved. For a moment, he might be relieved . . . until he remembers that he was so nervous about Jacob, that he didn't pay attention to anything the teacher said, and, since he will now be living another day--even making it to the next grade--he's going to totally bomb his language arts homework, which his mom will not be happy about.

(This is the same as the second diagram, but I put it in twice for your convenience)

There, the tension carried us to the schoolyard where it ended, but we now have something new to worry about.

Other times, you might have multiple threads of tension to play with. Maybe in the text, Timmy wasn't only afraid of Jacob beating him up, but also worried about making a good first impression with the teacher, or that none of his friends will be in class, or that he will look stupid because he has to wear his old clothes, shoes, and use an old backpack. That gives us four threads of tension to work with, and if we don't cut any of them off prior, all four of them will pull us into his first day of school. But, if we do cut one of them ahead of time, say his mom reminding him Jacob moved, we still have three other threads of tension in play.

Four threads of tension in play

One thread cuts early, but we still have three threads to carry the story

I'll be honest, this is a concept that is kind of difficult to explain in a blog post (I hope the diagrams help), and it's definitely more advanced, but I'd rather take a stab at explaining it than not explain it at all, because if writers consistently unintentionally undercut tension, their story won't work, but most people won't be able to pinpoint or explain to them exactly why it doesn't work.

Story with lots of undercut tension

Cutting off tension is not always bad. That's why I used the word "accidentally" and "undercutting" in the headline. Remember diagram two? It's okay as long as other significant tension is present in the story, or we get to new tension soon. This is why I argue that not all tension needs to lead to something significant. When you embrace that idea, you can find all kinds of awesome tension that will have readers drooling to turn the next page. Besides, this happens in real life. How often do you worry about something that turns out to be nothing? I used to do this all the time. You just need to deliver on the tension a lot of the time.

But remember this important caveat: The more buildup you have of that tension thread, the more likely it needs to lead to something significant. It either needs to lead to the predicted conflict, or a different one that is just as strong or stronger than the predicted. At the very least, there has to be something much bigger and much more significant at its end. Otherwise, it will feel anticlimactic. And audiences rarely like that.

With all this talk of tension, you might feel like you need to have your characters worrying, fearing, and hoping all over the page all the time. It's possible to go overboard in the wrong kind of story. Not all tension needs to take center stage in a scene. For example, if the scene is super entertaining, you may not need a ton of tension (though in that case, I'd consider the concept of "tension" to function in a different way than the plot-focused definition I'm using for this post, but let's not get into that). You don't need to saturate the text all the time (unless of course, that's the kind of story you are telling).

The point is, you don't want to accidentally undercut the tension, weakening the story. And when you understand how that works, you will be less likely to do it.

Also, a lot of the tension needs to have significant stakes--that's why it creates tension. If it doesn't have significant stakes, we may not feel tension, unless we just feel for the character's wellbeing.

For example, you might have a child character who imagines getting sent to prison for lying to a teacher. Well, we all know that's not going to happen. So does it really carry tension? Well, if we care about and feel close to the child character, it may still carry some tension.

In some cases, just the fact the character feels a certain way or views things through a particular lens is enough. But you still need some significant stakes to make the story work. (Confused yet?)

Watch out for characterization too. I once wrote a viewpoint character that was very easygoing and optimistic. But almost every time I wrote a scene for him, he undercut the tension. In some stories, like stories with really epic stakes, you can still make that work, but for my story, it was ruining his scenes. So I had to tweak him.

And if you read this post and feel utterly confused, do not fret. It's pretty complicated to explain. And loads of writers write successful stories without thinking about any of these things. But, as I always say, it can be really helpful to be aware of.

Related Posts
Tension vs. Conflict (Hint: They aren't the Same Thing)
Look Forward, not Back, to Pull the Reader In
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
Reeling Readers in via Curiosity


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