I’m going to go ahead and say that this is my absolute favorite thing to discuss about good writing. In fact, I’m going to assert that 76% of the time a book is described as “bad”, it’s because of tension issues.1
The actual word “tension” comes from the Latin word tensio(n- ), and from the French word tendere, meaning “stretch.” I normally shudder when I see someone starting a paper with a definition, but here is my exception, because it’s just so COOL. When we experience good tension, we feel it physically—our throats tighten, our stomachs clench, we feel the muscles and ligaments in our joints stiffen and “stretch” taut—all from words on a page. It’s a visceral response, and here’s the best part—when we experience tension, we’re not responding to what an author is saying. We’re responding to what isn’t being said.
That’s right—tension comes from deliberate space. It’s the shadows, the negative space, the darkness. We’re scared of the night when we’re little because of what we can’t see. And tension in writing is the same. When we read, we physically tense up because we can sense that there is something being left unsaid.
Now, we’re talking about romance here, right? Not murder mysteries. But guess what, same principal applies to sexual tension. We physically respond to what COULD happen between the characters we’ve become emotionally invested in, and the author executes that the exact same way—by creating tension through what isn’t said.
Here’s why I think analyzing tension is so cool: good writing adds tension in a lot of sneaky ways.
First off, let’s discuss the obvious. Crafty information gaps in the plot. This one will smack you right in the face if it’s done poorly. The reader doesn’t want to be told exactly what’s going to happen and why in a straightforward and no nonsense way. We love nonsense. We LIVE for nonsense. The hero has a dark and sordid past? Leave me little clues and make me guess. The heroine is secretly in love with her brother’s best friend and it can never ever happen? You better let me see some serious pining, but don’t you dare just spill those beans.
But here’s the thing–it’s harder than it looks. An author can’t withhold too much of the plot and just dump it all at once, or the reader will feel duped. It’s a mutual relationship the author and the reader have, and the reader wants to be involved in the unfolding. An author also can’t drop too many hints, or the reader will feel bored and unsatisfied. They can’t just throw in some sneaky plot twists and call it good. Essentially–tension is a lot harder to execute than it might look.
Continue reading “Hearts and Crafts: Writing Tension”