First, a caveat: this is a post about the craft of fiction, and I don’t have the first clue about how to teach the craft of fiction.

From my years as a high school English teacher, I could teach you how to write an essay on the symbolism found in The Great Gatsby. I could teach you the joy of diagramming a sentence. I could give you some tips on what to do when you run into an iambic pentameter in a darkened alley. But teach you about the craft of fiction? Bah. No way.

So instead of trying to teach you, I’ll simply share something fiction-crafty, something about which I am very excited.

My friend, Schmidtie, does this when she discovers something life-changing (an ergonomic garlic press, Corn Salsa from Trader Joe’s, those little mini peanut butter cups, also from Trader Joe’s). She wraps these discoveries in tissue paper, puts them in a cute paper bag, and says to me, “Here’s a little something you HAVE to try.” She shares because she knows these things will change my life. And they do.

But what if once I share this life-changing, share-worthy discovery about craft, you think, “Huh? That’s not life-changing. That’s Craft 101.” Kind of like when, just last week, Schmidtie joyfully shared her latest, brand new discovery: Goodreads! Yes, Schmidtie was ten to fifteen minutes late to the party on that one.

Maybe you’ll think the same thing of me. Maybe my new discovery will leave you bored and unimpressed, and you’ll promptly email the WU Mamas and call for my demotion. Maybe in sharing my new discovery, you’ll also see I learned/stole this idea from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, chapter seven, pages 129-139. That’s right! I stole the idea of a fellow WU contributor!

OK, but this week I sat in church and we learned about Loving Your Neighbor. For the hundredth or thousandth time. For good reason. We humans need to be told and retold to love one another because we forget to do it. Likewise, preschoolers must be reminded, over and over, to share. Dogs must be reminded, over and over, to heel. So maybe I should share this not very original idea in case you are as forgetful as I . . . but will my ego and I look stupid? Ack! To share or not to share?

Friends, it is this tension, the emotional stress, the feeling of suppressed, palpable anxiety found in all good stories, that I’d like to share with you today.

So let’s talk tension. Actually, no. Don’t think “tension.” Don’t even think “conflict.” Instead, use Lisa Cron’s fabulous term: The Versus. The Versus (as in boxers versus briefs; dark versus milk chocolate; Palin versus Clinton) needs to be present and prevalent in our stories because versus moments force our characters to make difficult decisions. And stories are born when characters are forced to make difficult decisions.

Tension is easy to find in life’s daily dilemmas. This morning when my alarm went off, I wanted to hit the snooze button, but I also wanted to write before my kids woke up. After my kids woke up, I wanted to sit with my daughter as she practiced for her violin recital, but I also wanted to write. Ten minutes ago, I wanted to eat another handful of those Trader Joe’s mini peanut butter cups, but I also wanted my jeans to feel less tight.

Versus moments drive our lives. Versus moments drive our stories. When characters feel conflicted, that tension is communicated to the reader: Ack, Don Draper, are you really going to sleep with yet another secretary? Or, Ack, Romeo, do not stab yourself! Juliet is just sleeping! Or, Ack, Katniss, how can you choose between Peeta and Galen?

When we experience tension in the lives of literary characters, we want to see which choice they make, and we want to vicariously experience how that decision plays out. (Read Wired for Story to learn more about this. It’s fascinating.)

For some reason, however, I forget to include tension in my writing. I forget to give the character choices and dilemmas. I forget it as easily as I forget to love my neighbor. And even when I remember that my story needs tension, it’s very difficult for me to understand how to create that tension with mere words.

So instead of thinking, My story must have conflict, I need to think, My characters must feel torn. Often.

That’s right. We must create a massive game of tug-o-war within our characters by throwing choices in their direction. Even better, we might give them only lousy choices. Or, let them be torn and then let them make a wrong choice. We must make them squirm as a result of their choices. Squirming characters = engaged readers.

We shouldn’t protect our characters from discomfort because tension is born of discomfort, and it’s tension that keeps an audience tuned in, hoping to see how Don Draper, Romeo, and Katniss make the decisions that will alter the trajectory of their stories. Readers are curious little voyeurs; we writers must give them something about which to be curious.

Will you consider a scene you are working on, and take a minute to share how your character feels torn? Perhaps your character is as conflicted as Hamlet in the famous “To be or not to be?” soliloquy. Or perhaps, your character wonders whether to open a letter that’s not addressed to her. Whether to ask his professor out on a date. Whether Voldemort can be trusted just this once.

Please share! When you do, you illustrate ways we can inject more tension into our own characters’ lives.

Finally, if I weren’t a starving writer, I’d buy each of you a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. I’d wrap it in tissue and mail it to your doorstop with this note: Here’s a little something you HAVE to try. Because you really should.

Happy tension-making, fellow WU’ers! Now take a moment to share . . .


Photo courtesy of flickr’s Toffehoff.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.