Today’s guest is Clayton Lindemuth, with a post about tension and author integrity because first, they are linked, and second, learning to let go of our nice selves is critical to good writing. If the reader doesn’t perceive the reality of the challenge or conflict facing the protagonist, the story is weak. His debut, Cold Quiet Country, set in winter of 1971, is a is a go-for-the-jugular country noir… “Lindemuth carefully weaves characters’ backstories into this thrilling narrative, and his visceral prose and unsparing tone are wonderfully reminiscent of such modern rural noir masters as Tom Franklin and Donald Ray Pollock,” from Publishers Weekly starred review.
Anything for the Story: Tension
How do you make your reader bite her nails so hard she doesn’t know what she’s doing until two knuckles are gone? Let’s frame the question.
Our impulse as writers is to think of something interesting, tell the reader, hey, check out this interesting situation—a boy feels this way; a girl feels that way—and then wonder why our beta readers tremble in the corner and won’t make eye contact.
The reason “show, don’t tell” is the First Rule of Fiction is that showing accomplishes something telling doesn’t: no matter how precisely we draw a picture, we are still forcing our reader to interpret it. “Show don’t tell” creates reader engagement; it compels her to think, to ponder, to test hypotheses.
So what does an engaged reader asking questions have to do with tension? Bear with me just a little longer, and let’s expand focus.
Sometimes we find ourselves writing dinner table scenes because they’re comfortable. However, if there isn’t a bomb under the table, or a pistol in Mom’s bra holster, or at least Mom daydreaming about her Sicilian lover—something with latent tension—we’re probably boring the reader.
Lob a Bomb
The first step in creating tension is to avoid writing about things that are dull. It’s like Stephen King’s advice to remove everything that isn’t Story, or Michelangelo removing everything that isn’t David. In the human experience, about forty zillion things are heart breakingly rotten. Find one of them, light the fuse, and pitch it under your protagonist’s dining room table.
Place your character into situations that carry an implied threat. The threat doesn’t have to involve physical harm. It could be emotional, financial, spiritual, or involve a hundred other dimensions.
Don’t Defuse the Bomb
Next consideration: nothing destroys tension faster than defusing a bomb right before you throw it.
This hearkens back to why we “show, don’t tell”: we want the reader to keep putting herself into the scene, comparing the bad guy to Uncle Eddie, and most importantly, asking questions. However, as soon as the bomb is defused, the most important question—is this whole family going to blow up while they’re eating ham and gravy—is answered.
Writing Cold Quiet Country, I knew from page one the struggles that would befall Gwen, the red-headed, forced-to-grow-up-too-soon young woman whose disappearance forms the backbone of the narrative. But I withheld that information from the reader until I conveyed enough context to ensure the unraveling has maximum emotional impact.
In your story, after you’ve chosen a situation with latent tension, brainstorm ways to ratchet it higher. What’s the worst thing that could happen, right now?
Make it happen.
You Have to Be the Villain
I know it’s tough. We want to be nice people and hint to the reader that everything turns out okay. After all, we’re not bad, bless our hearts, we’re just telling a story. We wouldn’t even be thinking about evil stuff if it wasn’t for our duty as storytellers.
However, good storytelling requires you to keep your reader uncertain of the fates of the characters she cares about. In fact, the more committed you are to conveying anything of significance, the more willing you have to be to honestly present the evil character, and make him utterly convincing.
Our jobs are critical. We’re not enablers for voyeurs. We stun our readers into a higher understanding of the lives they affect. Our charge is to change the world by enlightening it, hence we create fictions that fracture emotions and force our audience to contemplate with feeling issues they would otherwise only contemplate with intellect, or not at all.
In my life there really was a Sheriff Bittersmith, the arch evil narrator in Cold Quiet Country. He molested girls and knocked their lives’ trajectories into paths that included unspeakable pain. He died of old age after forty years of un-confronted pedophilia and rape.
I didn’t want to write Sheriff Bittersmith in first person. To me he’s the Jeffrey Dahmer of bad guys. But the truth is that the reader must believe the author is comfortable enough in the bad guy’s skin to let him do his damage. She has to know in her soul that you have the guts to destroy the character you love, to break her heart, her bones. Sheriff Bittersmith commits acts that made me drip tears into the keyboard—but you can be sure no reader will ever turn the last page without feeling something. That’s why I wrote him honestly.
Putting it All Together
The foundation of every great story is a situation with latent tension. Our job is to find it, then protect it, augment it, exacerbate and prolong it.
Your story doesn’t have to be about a heinous act for the principle to stand. Consider this: your protagonist is a cheating spouse. The reader automatically needs to know if she feels guilt, or is the marriage over? Does the husband know? Suspect? Or is he in the TV room with a beer and the game, oblivious?
You can err and defuse the natural tension quickly: the divorce papers are on the kitchen island and her soon-to-be ex-husband is scribbling his signature.
Or you can enhance the natural tension. She’s terrified of both her Sicilian lover and her husband, but even though she tried to break it off, her lover won’t let go. Her husband is suspicious, and he’s standing in the bedroom entrance with her cell phone, looking quizzically at the screen, saying, “Who’s Giovanni, and why has he called ten times in the last two days?”
Bottom line: out of the forty zillion things in the human experience that are simply wretched, you have to get cozy with one, and you have to tell it honestly. Lob one of those disasters onto your protagonist’s breakfast plate, and pay special attention to encourage the instinctive fear your reader will feel.
You don’t get to be the good guy or gal. You’re the author. If you need to roll a deck of Marlboros in your t-shirt to get in the mood to be a badass, well, anything for the story.
I’d love to see in your comments the first inherently tense situation that pops into your mind. Let’s start cataloguing the forty zillion…