Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Buzz Words: Tension

My Firefox homepage is set to Yahoo!, so in addition to the biggest of the real news headlines, I also see a variety of other headlines, such as: "10 Best Cities for the Young & Rich," "6 Ways to Know Your Man is Cheating," "Eat This Food to Lose 25 Pounds and Live Forever," etc. (Maybe these aren't exact titles, but close enough for you to get the picture.) I click through occasionally, most recently to an article about overused office buzz words. You know the ones--"synergy," "out of the box," "sea change." The words that defined a corporate culture for six months and then transferred to the rest of the world as business touchstones and shorthand for years after that. The point of the article was to advise readers to avoid these buzz words and to opt instead for phrases and words that delivered new meaning, because as we all know, when words get overused, they lose their impact (click here for a great send-up of Dan Brown's cliché usage). While the advice is relevant in the office and in your writing, I have to admit that office buzz words sometimes serve a purpose--or maybe I just have to admit that buzz words serve a purpose to me.

Right now, my buzz word is tension. In every manuscript that I read, I'm looking for tension, tension, tension. This encompasses a variety of elements. For starters, as a given, tension necessitates that the manuscript contains some sort of drama (this is as true for comic writing and light fiction as it is for thrillers and dramatic plots; conflict = drama).

Next, tension relies on well-paced exposition (you already know how I feel about pacing). This is as important in the meat of a story as it is in a story's prologue; even scene-setting should build tension by foreshadowing drama and conflict. Also, it requires a stern editing eye to pare down step-by-step mundanity of everyday life and foreground only the important plot elements. (E.g. Your protagonist botches things at work and loses the company's biggest client. That night, she comes home, cooks dinner, sets the table, eats, clears the dishes, watches TV, goes to bed, wakes up the next morning, gets dressed, goes to work, gets fired by her boss. Major plot drama exists in those two sentences, but the tension is totally diluted if all of that mundane filler is included.)

Finally, consider the stakes for your characters and their world. Tension exists (and can be executed beautifully and flawlessly) in the small scale of daily life, but it can also be vaulted beyond that if the conflict holds consequences beyond the scope of your protagonists. Bottom line? Synergize your plot elements out of the box to create a tension sea change in your manuscript. :)


Cassie Knight said...

Great post and very relevant. But I have to ask, how much tension is too much tension? There seems to be a school of thought that a reader needs to "rest" but I like my romances that are heavy on action/adventure and sexual tension. Would you say a 60/40 split is reasonable or what I like, a 80/20? I do like my stories moving. :D

Naomi said...

Can there be too much tension? :) I obviously like my stories moving too. But, a simmering romance that unfolds slowly (but grows consistently) throughout the course of a book can be just as good as an action-packed adventure w/ loads of sexual tension. So, I think 60/40 or 80/20 could work; my only precaution re: 80/20 is to make sure that multiple plot lines don't replace relevant plot lines and that the large amounts of tension don't bring the book to its climax (pun intended :) ) 20k words before the book ends.