Tag Archives: tension

Conflict everywhere

Last week I binge-read the first five books of the Pretty Little Liars series. They’re about four high school juniors in a super-rich community (someone’s grandmother leaves all her grandkids $2 million and no one blinks), and the problems they have being popular. Totally not the kind of thing I usually read. I don’t even remember how they appeared on my radar.

They’re very high tension, so I kept getting dragged through them. There’s a mystery about what happened in the past, plus a mystery about what’s going on now, plus a zillion other conflicts. I only managed to slow down and get more writing done because I made myself read the spoilers in the Wikipedia article.

Kelly posted some good thoughts about conflict last year, defining macro (world-level), micro (interpersonal), and sub micro (internal) conflict. The Pretty Little Liars books have the last two dials turned up to max. The world-level conflict is pretty high in the context of the girls’ high school lives, but the planet isn’t going to get blown up or anything. However, the author brings in every possible interpersonal conflict. No one has a relationship with anyone that doesn’t have some kind of tension in it. (Or if they do, it’s not mentioned, which is pretty much the same thing.) Not with parents, not with teachers, not with friends. There’s cheating (academic and romantic), bulimia, shoplifting, stalking, bullying on multiple levels… The only time their friends or siblings are mentioned are when they have a fight or another conflict. Only one teacher is mentioned, and it’s because one of the girls sleeps with him. It’s exhausting (think after school special meets soap opera), but it keeps me turning pages.

I wouldn’t want everything I read to have this much conflict in it—I said something before in a post I can’t find about how it feels like being dragged through a foreign city by a travel guide who won’t let me stop to enjoy myself—but it’s a good writing lesson about how to find conflict everywhere.

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The longer I do this writing gig the more I think that’s true. Pay attention the next time you read a book or watch a movie or check out a TV show everyone’s talking about. It’s going to be full of conflict. In my mind there are three levels: world conflict (macro conflict), interpersonal conflict (micro conflict), internal conflict (sub-micro or maybe metaphysical conflict). Yes, character development and worldbuilding are important–if readers don’t care about the characters they won’t give a shit if they fall off a cliff or not–but an argument could be made that those elements aren’t as important as conflict. Two like-able characters become boring if they’re never at odds with each other, a third party, or the Big Shit that’s about to hit the fan. A really, really great story finds a way to tie all three together.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Norma and Jean are mortal enemies because Jean is married to Norma’s ex-husband Marty (micro). Not only that, Jean and Marty had an affair while he and Norma were still married. (Still micro–edging into macro, here, depending on the circumstances of the affair).

Jean feels guilty about being the other woman so much that she hates herself a little. A lot, actually (sub-micro).

Marty happens to be the President of the United States who is in the middle of WWIII and is deciding whether or not to turn it nuclear. (Macro)

How do we tie ’em all together? Maybe Jean’s a spy who’s been charged with becoming the President’s mistress in order to get his secrets but finds herself falling in love him. And Norma is her sister.

See? Juicy! Interesting! I wanna know more about these characters. Hell, I wanna *write* about these characters now.

It’s important to remember that conflict isn’t the same as “action”. A story doesn’t need to be wall-to-wall bloodshed to be full of conflict. There are various degrees of tension and part of learning the craft of writing is learning the nuances of conflict.

If you’re not familiar with Brad Beaulieu, well. For one thing, you should be, because he’s a hell of a writer.  For another, he’s great at teaching tension. He gives seminars on tension at Gen Con and Origins–if you’re able, try to attend one. He’ll break down a popular book to show you how the author put tension on every page. A few years back he wrote an article for the SFWA bulletin, and I leave you with a bit of his advice:

… a successful novel needs not only to vary the tension level, but it needs to combine a variety of tension, and the most successful will combine them in different ways to create a symphony of anxiety within the reader to keep them turning the pages. Just take a look at mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. There are still action-packed sword fights and times of suspense and dread. And within sweeping tales like The Lord of the Rings, there are still times where Frodo pines for the life in the Shire, bringing in sharp relief the arduous and danger-filled path he’s taking toward Mount Doom.

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Analyzing Twilight

I mentioned on Facebook recently that I finally got a used copy of Twilight to scribble in. Back when I read it (apparently in 2008, didn’t realize it’d been that long), I didn’t like it but I also couldn’t put it down. I kept meaning to analyze it to find out why I kept flipping pages when I dislike vampires, werewolves, and romance.

Then at Gen Con (last year, I think), I went to a talk by Brad Beaulieu where he talked about tension on every page. He analyzed The Hunger Games (which I have to admit I thought was cheating, because of course a life or death battle has tension (don’t yell at me, he still has very good points)) in pretty much the same way I wanted to look at Twilight. A while later I randomly acquired the issue of the SFWA Bulletin where Brad wrote up his analysis as an article.

Tension on every page, at least phrased in that way, comes from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s based on the idea that when tension decreases, the reader’s attention wanders–so low tension scenes should be avoided. Anyone who has read my books is probably thinking, “We told you that years ago, Elizabeth!” Well yeah, but I can only work on one writing problem at a time. Besides, my tea-drinking scenes are different.

So anyway, Twilight. This is one book that is well-served by its prologue, excuse me, its preface. In half a page we find out that the protagonist is about to die for someone she loves. There’s a whole lot of questions there–will she die? Why? What was the awesome life she had before this? What makes her love worth dying for? Plus, dying in his place engenders sympathy.

Then, chapter 1…well, I wrote “dragging” in several places. And “reeallly dragging” once. The question of whether this girl who seems determined to make herself miserable will fit in and have friends in school is…not as exciting. At least, once I wrote “reeallly dragging” at the bottom of one page, I flipped the page and the next one starts with Bella seeing the vampires (and then two pages of description about how beautiful they are, and then two pages about who they are, and then a page about Edward specifically, and then the rest of the chapter is about how Edward thinks she smells awesome or whatever (but we don’t know that yet)). I suspect I kept reading past chapter 1 on my first read because I tend to give books 50 pages before I give up, and the preface, at least, had set its hooks into me. Or fangs, as the case may be.

So what I’ve learned so far: if your first chapter does not live up to the excitement of the rest of the plot, consider adding a very short prologue that raises a whole bunch of different questions to give the reader something to be curious about. Though I’d have to say I’d award bonus points if the first chapter did live up to the rest of the plot.

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Structure and function

No, this is not a anatomy post.

One of the blessings (curses?) of being a writer is that you can never really shut it off. Once you train your brain to think like a writer—or, maybe more accurately, recognize you’ve always had a writer-brain and refine its skills—your inclination is to pick apart stories and try to make them better.

So the other night I watched the premier episode of The Americans, a series set in 1981 about two KGB spies living undercover as Americans. They’re “married”, have two children, and lead double lives. The pilot episode did for me what pilot episodes are meant to do: it got me interested in the conceit and the characters, introduced plenty of intrigue and suspense (a CIA agent moves into the house next door!) and made me look forward to the next episode. On reflection, though, I think they could have used different techniques to build more tension.

Spoiler alert!

Specifically, I’m thinking about their use of flashbacks. The episode is set mostly in 1981—however, there’s a few short segments set in the early ‘60s that outline the two main character’s training, how they met, and the very beginning of their “married” life. In the present day the duo kidnaps a former spy that has defected to the US and works for the CIA. They’re supposed to put the defector on boat for transport back to Russia but miss their connection after a run of bad luck. They keep the kidnapped man in the trunk of their car until the heat can die down a little bit. Near the middle of the episode, the wife checks on the man, and as she stares at him, the viewer is transported back to a training session in 1961. The wife—at that time a recruit—spars with the defector—at that time her superior—and she loses. While her superior has her pinned, he pulls down her sweatpants and rapes her.  Then we come back to present day. The wife stares at the defector for a few long moments before shutting the trunk. The tension is raised for the rest of the episode because the viewer is wondering when the wife will exact her revenge.

But what if the story had been told in chronological order? Would the tension have been heightened? If we’d learned before the first commercial break about the rape, we’d be wondering how that would come back to haunt the wife. And then once the kidnapping happens, we’d instantly recognize the defector as the wife’s rapist. The viewer would be “in the know” before the character, and so we’d be anticipating how it’s going to play out. And then once the wife recognizes the defector … we would be fully invested in how their interaction goes down.

I said all of that to say this: flashbacks are your friend when revealing back story, but if you’re using them to build tension, think twice. Chronological order might be a better method.

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