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Tension vs. Energy

Mass-1024x698What is more comfortable for you to write, feelings or action?  It’s an important question.  The answer predicts what we’ll mostly find on your pages but also what we mostly won’t.  While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t.

Human beings can be broken into two broad psychological categories: those who store tension and those who store energy.  Those things may sound the same but they’re not.  People who store tension turn inward.  Those who store energy turn outward.  The first group ponders, reflects, thinks and feels.  The latter group acts.  One set of people likes to deal with life over a cup of tea with a splash of conversation.  The other set prefers to go for a run or smack a ball with a stick.

If that sounds like a gender dichotomy you may be right.  Psychologist Paul Rosenfels, in his work identifying polarity in people’s makeup, agreed.  He did not assert that one way of being was better than the other; rather, he observed that the orientation of feeling-centric and action-oriented people come with advantages and disadvantages.  Each group has their best selves and their worst selves.

There is no judgment in polarities.  There is only the recognition that one is more naturally one type of person over the other.  That’s important for fiction writers to know, too, and especially important as you focus on constructing the inner journey of change and fastening it to the outer journey through the plot.  When you focus on what everything means it’s easy to overlook that things also must happen.

Now, understanding what type of person you or your characters are is fine but it’s not enough.  What happens in a story is most authentic when it reflects and is driven by a protagonist’s swings between inward tension and its outer release.  In other words, it’s the swings between polarities that causes characters and their stories to grip us as if they are real.

Most characters dwell in a state of being.  At any point in a story their selves can be defined.  However, a state of being is static; changing states are dynamic and what is story if not change?  Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, changes in self-definition are the inner turning points that make scenes dynamic even when nothing overtly is happening.

That said, the events of a story become anchored in an emotional veracity when we can see through actions a character’s swing from the buildup of tension to the release of energy, or vice versa.

So what kind of polarity swings are we talking about portraying?  Ones like these: Self-awareness turning into self-confidence; goodness hardening into righteousness; feeling safe transforming into feeling free; observing the world becoming taking responsibility for it.  One pole is reflective, the opposite one is active.

Dwelling only inward produces a story that may resonate but not one that engages.  It’s the kinetic force of a swing from reflection to action that stirs us and makes what characters feel becomes impossible to avoid.  Such shifts feel real because they reflect our own human makeup, as Rosenfels showed us.

Marking a polarity swing most often means creating something for a character to do or say.  As obvious as that sounds, I often watch writers in workshops freeze when it’s time for their characters to stick their necks out, do something we can’t miss, say things that cannot be taken back, or make an inconvenient mess.  Characters are the most interesting when they’re inconvenient but making them behave that way is uncomfortable.

So, how can we turn this polarity principle into tools that help one to overcome the human inclination to be safe, cooperative and nice; or, sometimes, the reverse for thriller writers and other objective types who incline toward energy?

For today I’ll focus on the polarity swing from tension toward energy.  Write down your answers to the following:

Do your answers suggest ways to make your protagonist more active, vibrant, surprising and memorable?  If so, use them.

In life our moods swing.  We contradict ourselves.  We act out of character.  We just plain act out.  Why then is it so hard to allow characters to do the same?

What do you do store more naturally, tension or energy?  How is that reflected in your writing and how will you swing your protagonist to the opposite pole in your writing session today?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].