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. [Read more…]