I’m a teepee. I’m a Wigwam. Stop it; You’re Two Tents.
I had written numerous stories, attempted a couple of disastrous novel drafts, and studied writing for quite some time before I really understood what tension was. It had been explained to me repeatedly throughout school in various English classes and even a few creative writing classes, but it was only when I finally wrote a story that really utilized tension, only when I felt the tug of the current of tension pulling my story towards its conclusion, that I truly understood how important tension was. I don’t remember what story I was actually writing, but once I felt that pull, I had an epiphany. Suddenly, the piece I was writing was actually a story, as opposed to just being a sketch, an experiment.
Tension has to do with expectation on the part of the reader. In its purest form, tension drives the reader on; the reader is hooked and simply cannot stop reading because s/he HAS TO KNOW what happens next. Tension keeps the pages turning, and that’s the A#1 goal of a writer. (Some might argue this when it comes to post-modernist writing, but I disagree with that argument. Very experimental, even openly antagonistic writers are still attempting to connect to an audience, it just might be a very specific audience. Even anti-writing attempts to pull the reader forward through shared mockery.) Tension comes from a few very specific places. Fundamentally, tension arises from the plot. A character has a problem, a need, a desire. That character tries to address that issue, but there are obstacles in the way of his/her success. The question of how and if s/he will be able to overcome those obstacles creates tension.
But obstacles aren’t enough. And too many obstacles which appear random won’t keep the reader reading. The obstacles should be organic, which means they arise from the plot. In a down-to-earth sense, that means they should’ve been hinted at in some way. Perhaps they represent a theme that has been established. And, of course, they should be interesting. (Remember that if the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they won’t really care about the obstacles. They might even root for the obstacles rather than your characters.)
**There is a certain genre of stories that follow this pattern of thinking in which the protagonist is intended to be disliked by the reader. These are usually comedies. The problem with these stories is that a different kind of unintended tension can occur. The tension can then come from the reader’s expectation and hope that the character fails, the infamous scheudenfreude. This is really a lose-lose situation because on the one hand, if your character doesn’t fail, then the reader is disappointed, but if the character does fail, the reader is still disappointed because now the reader feels a little bit like a schmuck. There’s no real emotional payoff, here. These kinds of stories are very difficult to pull off. Lolita is a good example of one that works. The reader begins to realize at a certain point that the narrator is a despicable human being, but he’s so convincing that we forget, sometimes, and are sucked in by his charm, and, of course, he lies about how terrible he is. (This is rather a postmodern book because the tension is more between the reader and the author than the story itself, in some ways. Or maybe the tension is between the reader and himself.) (Of course it can be very fun to see a despicable character suffer for a moment. The film Bullets Over Broadway is a good example. When Jennifer Tilley’s character is finally shot, we laugh and cheer because she’s been ruining the story for so long. But she isn’t the main character.)**
But what we’re dancing around, here, is the question: what gives tension that realistic feel? To use film as an example, we’ve all seen action films in which there are many explosions, obstacles abound, and yet we care not one bit. Why? Well first, we have to have that likeable character so we, as readers, care whether the character overcomes his/her obstacles. There are lots of ways to achieve this and remember that even a scoundrel can be enjoyable to read. Then, we need established themes. These are the concerns of the story, what it’s really about. The novel High Fidelity is the story of a man who runs a record shop who decides to investigate all of his past relationships in order to see what went wrong and whether there are any commonalities. He’s an obsessive character, obviously, and a collector, so obstacles can easily arise from these themes. Music is a motif which can be explored to produce more obstacles. Love and human relationships are what the story’s really about, of course, and the idea of hiding from true connections. These themes are established early on and explored throughout. The book is also funny, which isn’t exactly tension but keeps the reader going a bit, and the obsessiveness of the character (especially regarding music) is interesting, which also keeps the reader going a bit.
Another major factor to consider is tone. An attack by beautiful, unmarried ninjas throwing sharpened CDs probably wouldn’t work in High Fidelity because it violates the tone of the story, the milieu of the novel’s world, even though it includes the motif of music and possibly the theme of love, eventually. (And yet we see this kind of sloppy writing in movies all the time.) When we write a story, we create certain rules, mostly borrowed from real life (gravity, people die when they’re shot in the head, etc.). When these rules are violated, it throws off the reader’s understanding of the world of the book, and it kind of ruins the story. If the rules don’t matter, why should I care? But it isn’t as obvious as breaking fundamental rules (like gravity suddenly doesn’t apply); breaking the tone ruins the story for the reader, also. The clearest example of this occurs in period writing. Approaching a period piece without observing the intellectual, philosophical, social, technological, etc. sensibilities of that period destroys a story’s credibility. One little slipup can ruin it for a reader. And these slipups are often intended to create tension.
A Brief Interlude Dealing with Postmodernism
To understand postmodernism, we have to understand modernism. Essentially, modernism involves experimentation in form, tone, approach, etc. in order to entertain the reader. A modernist text might include different forms of writing (a stage script within a story, for example). These forays usually arise from the plot, though; they aren’t simply random, and they are really intended to enhance the story. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. It often utilizes formal invention, but its purpose is more intellectual than modernism. In postmodernism, the tension arises between the reader and the story’s form, rather than necessarily from the actual story. There are other characteristics of postmodernism we’ll gloss over, such as the convention that postmodernism usually tells the reader how to read the story. So if we examine Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire we see, formally, an introduction, a long poem, and, following the poem, a long series of endnotes. The poem, itself, is fairly straightforward, and if we believe it, the introduction is also fairly straightforward. It’s in the footnotes that the true story arises, and the reader begins to question the “author’s” veracity. It also depends on what order we read the sections in as to how we perceive the story. Ultimately, the question becomes who wrote the poem, who wrote the endnotes, and how are they related? The tension, here, comes from the reader’s trust of the author and the story. It’s a kind of game, a puzzle, this story, and the tension comes for the reader in whether or not we can solve the puzzle. The story, itself, becomes secondary (mostly because we don’t believe it anyway). But let us not forget that even in this highly experimental masterpiece of fiction, there is still tension. The reader is propelled forward by the mystery of the book (more so than he would’ve been if the story was presented in a more linear, straightforward fashion).