Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to NOT Create Tension

In my last post, I talked about ways to drive a story forward so the reader can't put the book down. Today, I'm going to talk about ways authors often try to move a story forward that don't work.


Putting the main characters at risk will make a story more intense. But it's not enough. Think of all the action movies you’ve seen. Many of them could end in the annihilation of the entire human race, and we couldn't care less.

Let’s go back to The Hunger Games; Katniss is put in an arena with 23 other people where she has to fight to the death until only one survives. If the author just plopped her in the middle of the arena you’d want to know whether or not she makes it, but you can put the book down and find out later. But can she kill someone she’s in love with? I’ll keep turning pages to find out. The story is driven by choice, not danger.

Many novels drive you forward without any danger at all. In Jane Eyre, if Jane and Mr. Rochester never get together, Jane will just marry someone else. There’s no risk and no danger. Again, the story is driven by choice.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane was full of mysteries. Why did Halcyon’s father say her mother died in a fire when she was still alive? When she goes back home, why does everyone treat her badly? Well, rude people won't hurt her. That’s not the point. The author presented a question, and we want an answer.

Character Likability

This is important no matter what kind of book you write. While likable characters make a novel enjoyable, they're not enough to keep a novel going.

Let’s say you’re reading a book about a character you like. The character is happy; he’s not in danger, there are no mysteries in his life, he has no immediate choices to make. You might want to keep reading, but you don’t have to read it right now. You can get back to it in a week, or a month, or a year.

Compelling Language

You can use pretty words or make your story funny, but again, this will only make your novel enjoyable. Language is important, but it’s not enough.


(Is that a word?) This is particularly a problem with historical fiction. An author will chose a point in history that is fascinating and think that because he loves reading about the time period, people will enjoy reading the book whether it has a good story or not. I’ve read fantasy and science fiction books that do this as well. 

If I wanted to read something interesting, I would read non-fiction. Why would someone reach for your novel instead?

Because you have likable characters, compelling language, interestingness, but most importantly, you have questions and choices.


  1. I'm struggling with those 'choices', I guess. For most of the book, my MC kind of just goes with the flo. Thanks for the advice!

  2. You're absolutely right. I never thought about it that way before. The choices they make take it just that much deeper. Thanks for the advice - I'll try to keep choices in mind when I'm putting my characters in danger, lol.

  3. Jane Eyre geek here: Actually Jane is in danger. When she runs from Thornfield Hall and ends up collapsed from illness, she at one point reconciles herself to death. She also senses that her soul is in danger through Rochester's invalid offer of bigamy, which is far more threatening to her value system than physical death. Ditto for her time at Lowood and with Aunt Reed, only in both of those places she is in physical danger.

    Also, when St. John asks her to marry him in order to accompany him as a missionary's wife, she's aware that she probably *will* die in India because she is physically slight. She perceives that the greater danger is to her soul, not her body: she agrees to accompany St. John as a "sister" (her term), which he refuses. She's also endangered by Bertha Rochester, who is in a sense, Jane's gothic double—the part of her which she fears and becomes embodied in the madwoman.

    For added Jane Eyre fun, you should check out THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC, which has a great analysis of Bronte's book. She especially spends a lot of time dealing with the symbolism of the various place names, which is all vary "Pilgrim's Progress"—from Lowood to Thornfield and upward to Ferndean. Brilliant stuff!

    So, lots of threats for Miss Eyre, from socio-economic to personal. :)

  4. Yay, a literary debate!

    I absolutely agree with everything you said; however, those events don't become a driving force until more than halfway through the (very long) story. The first hundred pages are arguably about her safety, though I would say the driving force is more about her happiness, (i.e. How can she bear the condition she lives in?). Danger does raise the stakes at some point in the book, but I believe it's first Rochester's choice to propose and then Jane's choice to leave him that makes this novel intense. That was what pushed me from the beginning of the book to the end.

    Anyone care to join this debate? What are your thoughts?

  5. I don't know—the conditions at Lowood were pretty darn terrifying. I mean, her best friend dies in her arms. But I think the point of Jane Eyre is about Jane's desire for independence and integrity; this is what sets her off to Thornfield in the first place. (There's a great scene where she asks for "if not independence, then a different type of servitude.") This quest is brought to a head when she's confronted with the choice of living with Rochester in bigamy. A much as she loves him, she knows that if she goes off with him, she won't live happily ever after because she'd be betraying her most precious principles, thus destroying her soul rather than her body. Then when she goes off into the moors, knowing that she has no money, no family, she's in essence choosing death over dishonor. But it's a climactic reiteration of a theme which has been played out in various forms from the start of the book.

    I know some people have issues with the slowness of JE's start, but I love it. I think it's the nineteenth century pacing that throws them off, which tends to be more linear and inclusive than our 21st century tastes are used to. Queen Victoria stayed up all night to finish reading it, so I guess JE was the Victorian version of the Hunger Games! Jane's insistence on class equality was also pretty shocking at the time too.

    Frankly, I'm convinced that JE is the feminist uber-text. :)

  6. Amen!

    I think you won this discussion when you mentioned the slowness of the novel. I realized that by our standards, danger isn't prevalent enough of an element to be considered a driving force.

    (I do still think the novel is more about her happiness, whether that be through Rochester or independence or both, but I think we agree on that point.)

    Danger wouldn't be a driving force by our standards because the novel is so slow that threats to her soul and body aren't always prevalent, but the threat doesn't have to be as prevalent back then as it would today to keep people's attention.

    Has anyone seen the new movie? Oh my gosh, I've seen it four times and I want to see it again!

  7. Love this post! I agree whole heartedly with the concepts you've outlined here and I'm going to print your post and put it in my writing notes book :) if you don't mind!

    Keep up the great and interesting posts I love to read them.

    I'll admit, it was the reference to 'The Hunger Games' that got me stuck into your post :p

    Thanks again!

    Julz Perri www.fishandfrivolity.blogspot.com

  8. The new movie is wonderful, though I must admit that I watched it the first time comparing it to the novel, bummed that they cut out some of my favorite lines. I do love the "What's your tale of woe?" The casting rocked and they really got the period down. But the last PBS series is uberhot—if you haven't seen it, you'd love it, I think. That Jane really captured my vision too.

    I think our modern concept of happiness is pretty different than the 19th century's was.


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