Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tension and Conflict Part 5 - Methods to Create Tension

Earlier I described the difference between conflict and tension. Conflict is the action of two opposing forces. It is the butting of heads between ideas, needs, desires and wants, or it can be a single individual wanting two opposing things. What makes conflict important is the tension it creates. Tension is the emotional response to the conflict. Without it, the conflict would not have much impact on the reader.

Many methods can be used to create tension, and I will cover some of them here, but I’m sure you can add others to your list.

1. Introspection:
Introspection is the head and heart of the character, a combination of their thoughts along with the emotional encroachment on the person’s sense of security or confidence. When a character delves internally into a conflict, he reveals something unknown to the reader or even a new awareness for him. He is encouraged to dig deeper into the problem, and it leave readers with questions about how this situation can be resolved.

Introspection dramatizes the conflicting feelings and clashing ideas within the character or between two characters and it creates dilemmas for both parties. Often backstory is used here to introduce past problems and bring them to the present. When incidents or beliefs from a person’s past affects how he or she responds to life today, it creates this kind of internal tension. These are often secrets that the character doesn’t want others to know, but fighting for their idea or goal can result in revealing this secret. Think of people running for political office. They knew their past follies will be displayed to the world.

Sometimes through introspection, the characters face competing desires. They want two opposing things: success but they want privacy. A common conflict that creates great tension is when a character’s wants actually is opposed to what he needs. He wants success but what he really wants is happiness, and the success will not provide it.

Introspection can also reveal how a character’s perspective is not necessarily the truth, as illustrated in this dialogue from one of my unpublished novels.

Heroine: “I keep reminding myself it’s not the same, is it? Things change. We’re different now.”
Hero: “Are we?” He studied her face, hoping she’d back down on her comment. He’d stayed pretty much the same, always wishing he’d find another girl like her. Someone he could talk with and be open with. Be himself. With others, he felt as if he should try to impress them.

2. Ticking clock:
Tension is always created by adding a ticking clock to the plot line, such as a time restraint or deadline. The problem must be resolved in a certain amount of time. Stories that deal with marriages of conveniences are usually based on this premise. The hero or heroine must marry within a certain time period before they can inherit the family wealth. This works well in a suspense. The bomb will detonate at midnight. It must be found. The kidnaped child will die without it’s medication. The good guys must find the treasure before the bad guys. This technique creates exciting tension.

3. Dialogue:
Novels are dependent on dialogue, but dialogue can be used in a variety of ways to create tension other than arguments. What creates tension for the reader is to hold back information by leaving things unanswered or interrupted or by creating doubt when the character says something that doesn’t quite fit or adds an issue that hasn’t been initiated. Other elements of dialogue that creates tension are silence, subtext, and avoidance.

Silence - Silence is when the character doesn’t respond or when a conversation falters and no one speaks. The reader knows that the characters are dealing with what’s been said, and it helps create tension. Here’s an example from my novel And Baby Makes Five.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Chad making gentle circles on Nate’s back, the child’s contented look evident.
"I fed him a short time ago so he shouldn’t be hungry,” she said.
“He wants attention. We all need that some times.”
His words sounded melancholy as her pulse tripped. Everyone needed to be loved and caressed. She’d been without that kind of relationship since she’d married Miguel. His love had become rough and his drunken words, vile.
Silence settled over them until Chad turned toward her. “Do you understand what I’m saying?"

In this lack of response, the reader is drawn to their own questions. They last two pieces of dialogue spoken by Chad demonstrates his personal need for attention and his need to hear her response.

Subtext - Subtext is difficult to create but it’s an excellent form of subtle tension. Subtext is the implicit or underlying meaning behind the words.
Women 1: Do you like my dress?
Women 2: The color’s great.
Obviously reference to the color doesn’t answer the question, but it says a lot. A man flirts with a woman as they look at a lovely handcrafted table and chairs
She: Gorgeous. Those legs Look at the lines.
He: I have been.

Avoidance – Avoidance can is witnessed when a conversation seems to go in two different direction as one character is evasive or non-committal, or when one character answers a question with question. This is an excellent example from: Lisa Samson’s Tiger Lillie in a conversation the home owned by the first speaker’s mother. You can feel the tension as you read it.

“I asked Rawlins if I could work for the ad agency, Mom.”
“I already know his answer. Do you think you could paint some murals here for us? It will be a while before we move in—until your father retires, which might be years from now.”
"Rawlins said the ad world is too competitive. He doesn’t want me to become jaded.”
“I was thinking maybe a garden scene in the kitchen.”
“Maybe I could sell my paintings.”
“Or do trompe l’oeil. Here would be a good place to start.”
“I really want to go to college.”
Mom looked around. “Of course, the master bath has lots of potential, too.”

4. Character’s Perception:
In real life, we each see things differently. Our perception brings with it memories from our past and undertones from our experiences and beliefs. Tension is created not by what’s been said but what the words mean to the character. For example, if we’ve had a happy childhood and a good life, the word “home” brings a warm and happy feeling. If home was a horror for us, then that word will trigger other ideas. Give the character some perception challenges and use this technique to create an intriguing kind of tension.

5. Pacing:
Pacing has been covered in other articles, but it is a great tension technique. Remember while the plot is the journey of the characters in your novel, pacing is the speed at which you deliver the action. It’s like a roller coaster ride with moments of calm but always with the anticipation that the next challenging hill is coming until the roller coaster pulls back into the station and you climb out. Journey’s end. By moving a scene to another character or situation while you leave another scene hanging works very well to create tension. You can read other articles on pacing to learn how to create the fast and calm scenes. One style is using scene and sequel which I’ll cover in my next blog.


Kristina said...

Hi Gail,

Very helpful information. I'm so glad you’ll be covering scene and sequel in the next lesson. I will admit I have some confusion over this subject b/c a few craft books that I have recommend the scene/sequel structure (in that order-scene/sequel). Yet, some of the wonderful novels I read don't follow scene/sequel. It may be scene, followed by another scene, followed by another scene and then a sequel in the same character POV.

Looking forward to the next lesson.

Thanks so much for taking the time to teach us.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kristina. Scene and sequel can be confusing. A scene doesn't always have to be followed by a sequel, but this is one way to allow another character to react to what happened in the scene when they weren't the POV character. So use the sequel scenes when it is importan to know how another character is thinking or dealing with an issue.


Kristina said...

Thank you, Gail! That makes sense.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

Kristina ;-)

Kristina said...
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