Editor Victoria Mixon, whip-smart columnist with the newly named Writer Inboxed newsletter, is back with us today to share an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released book for writers, The Art & Craft of Prose: 3rd Practitioner’s Manual. She’s provided this excerpt on Making Tension Tense to WU exclusively. Enjoy!
Making Tension Tense
What really makes tension tense?
The modern reader’s expectation of tension—a story that stands above the crowd—can seem to the aspiring writer sometimes unbearably high. And yet it’s always been true that storytelling is about tension. The reader has always longed to be transported physically to another dimension through sheer adrenaline.
So let’s talk about what makes tension tense.
The oldest trick in the book.
Hemingway wrote so beautifully of this in his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.
Knowing—as we do—that curiosity is the single most powerful reader motivation out there, we can pretty easily guess that giving the reader a devastating question and then withholding the answer fuels reader curiosity like nothing else.
This is why I read so much vintage mystery. Those things are absolutely chocked to the eyeballs with questions to which the answers are adroitly yet firmly withheld until the final pages. Thriller and romance, the other two biggest-selling modern genres, do the same.
So we writers focus upon our scenes set in concrete details and our forward motion, we eliminate all internal dialog, and we minimalize internal monologue and exposition as much as humanly possible.
Through these simple techniques, we keep the reader’s curiosity piqued yet unsatisfied, page after page, for literally hundreds of pages—until the very. . .last. . .moment. . .
When we limit ourselves in this way to anchor the reader in scenes, it creates—inside the reader—enormous contrast between the stress of not-knowing, or “push,” and the joy of realization, or “pull.”
Two opposite poles, extreme contrast between them, and the reader caught inextricably in the middle, with nowhere to go except forward: this Push/Pull Rhythm moves the story out of the book and into the reader’s body, which is where all story rightfully belongs.
We never tell the reader what’s happening beneath the surface unless it makes that surface only more fascinating. Subtext is for the reader to discover.
Their ultimate delight.
“Does this skirt make my butt huge?”
“It’s fine.” She ran her hands over her own bony hips with a satisfied smile.
Now, what’s missing from this snippet of scene? [Read more…]