One of my critiquers recently said something that made me think. She kept writing notes in my manuscript like Where's the tension? and This would be a good spot to add tension.
No tension? What's she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family farm is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there's no tension??
Well, after chewing on this for awhile, I came to realize that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably (and they CAN be synonymous), they aren't necessarily the same.
Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines CONFLICT like this: a character enters a scene with a goal and standing in the way is an obstacle. That's conflict, and it's necessary to holding the reader's interest.
TENSION in literature is important because it evokes emotion in the reader. Think of it in terms of real-life tension--that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that makes you all jittery. This is what you want your reader to feel in every single scene of your story. Tension connects the reader with the character and most of the time will keep them reading to the end of the book.
How are the two related? Conflict should create tension. But it doesn't, not all the time. I think of the movies my brother-in-law likes to watch, where things are always exploding and I couldn't care less. Lots of conflict. No tension. Thank God for Teralyn, whose honest comments opened my eyes to this whole idea so I can a) fix my current novel and b) not write another book with this problem.
So how, you might ask, do we write a book that's chock full of tension? Three things:
1. Conflict in every scene. Yes, every single scene. It can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or it can be quiet (a person who wants two opposing things), but make sure it's there. Too many stretches without conflict and the story starts to drag. Your reader loses interest. Examine every scene to make sure there is a clear conflict. If there isn't any, either add some or just throw the scene out, because it's not moving your story forward anyway.
2. Primal stakes. In order for conflict to create tension in your reader, the reader has to care about your character. For that to happen, the reader has to relate to your character's struggle. To paraphrase Blake Snyder again, a plot that hinges on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of a loved one, fear of death, revenge, love, etc. will connect with readers at a basic level because everyone gets those things. One of the problems in my story was that I was trying to push saving the family farm as the character's goal when I should have been pushing survival. In my head, the two were synonymous, but I focused on one and not the other, and the reader didn't make the connection. Make the stakes ones every reader will relate to, and you'll have the tension you need to keep them interested.
3. Clear emotional responses. Sometimes the lack of tension is caused when a writer doesn't clearly convey the character's emotional response to conflict. I've read these stories where something nasty happens to the character but their response to it is flat or understated. And I think, if SHE doesn't care that she just got kicked out of school, why should I? This must not be a big deal after all. Make sure your character's response matches the conflict, in appropriateness and intensity.
There you go. Light bulb on. This is probably old news to many of you, but I figure if I'm struggling with it, maybe someone else is, too. Pay it forward, peeps, pay it forward.