Creating Tension in Writing

One thing that can really make or break a piece of fiction (regardless of format) is the tension. It’s often is missing when something goes horribly wrong and (for me at least) it was the what was seriously wrong with the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. So, I thought I would throw together a few important things to consider in writing and building tension. A warning if you are sensitive to talking about sex, this is going to be an R-rated blog.


1. Building Anticipation

Tension in storytelling is a lot like really good sex. It’s really rare to have great sex that is just the, let’s stick it in variety. Instead, like fiction, there is teasing and touch and playing with the body (reader). You reveal just a little bit at a time, building anticipation and pleasure until your partner (reader) absolutely needs to go all in. You take your time, but you move with a kind flow and rhythm, you let things rise and then pull back, rise and then pull back and then there is a point in your story where it is, indeed time for full steam ahead and you go for it.

If you think about it, that’s what a master of storytelling does. They give you glimpses and foreshadowing of what’s to come. The set the frame of your mind and they control the narrative. This is particularly important in genres like horror. An example of really effective tension building is the film Paranormal activity.

Image result for paranormal activity

Sorry… but it’s been quite long enough for spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film you can always leave now and come back later…

The great thing about this film is how each night is an event that ramps up the tension a little. Virtually no scene is wasted and there is a great interplay between what the characters experiencing each night, and then reliving it through the following day. Each day the tension builds just a little, until the shit hits the fan in the last fifteen minutes of the film.

The story itself offers almost nothing unique. It’s found footage, it’s dealing with a lineage demon, and of course ultimately there is a possession. But the writer and filmmakers give you just enough in each scene to slowly and gradually ramp up the tension and the creep factor. You aren’t bludgeoned over the head with something outrageous the moment it begins. Instead in the first few minutes of the film, you wonder to yourself where this could possibly get creepy. Half-way through the film, you can feel your heart rate increase every time you get some of the bedtime footage and ultimately the payoff is great. But without the tension, this film would have been slow and boring.

2. Framing and Foreshadowing

But what about films or books that have a lot of downtime, that take a bit of world building to get to that good tension building?

Jurassic Park is an excellent example.

Head over to YouTube for a moment and watch this scene if you aren’t familiar.

The scene itself foreshadows what’s coming. The first thing you see after the credits is something rustling through the trees. Just like later when the T-rex makes it’s first deadly appearance. In this scene you see the creature watching the man walk on top of the kennel (shipping container, whatever you call it) as they try to move the Raptor into position. The key to this scene, the great foreshadowing it does, is that you have dozens of men with guns, you have a number of precautions taken to prevent the dinosaur from hurting anyone, and yet, still, ‘life finds a way’ and things go horribly wrong. Notice the kinds of camera angels, the key dialogue, the set design, lighting, and everything else. All of it creates this perfect tension where you just know something is about to go wrong.

Image result for t rex jurassic park

After this scene it takes some time to assemble the characters and get them all in the right place for the real story to begin. Mixed in there you have the science behind the story, the introduction to the wonders and beauty of the park itself and how the characters fall in love with the idea of meeting real dinosaurs. But in the back of your mind, that opening always looms, all that foreshadowing, frames your experience. And each piece of dialogue seeks to serve a contrast between wonder and terror.

If you know you are going to have a slow build, framing something big in the beginning can be a powerful way to start the tension rolling while giving the reader something to think about. Speaking of which…

3. Sustaining the Tension (Give them something to think about)

One thing that I think many films and books struggle with is sustaining tension. One way to do that is, even in moments where this is no apparent tension in place, creating tension can be successfully done by leaving unanswered questions or creating a state if disequilibrium for the characters. Did you leave a character in real serious mortal danger at the end of a chapter? Did you drop a philosophical bomb on your audience and leave them pondering it while you diverge into another character or area of the book?

Image result for the black prism

This happens a lot in books like The Light Bringer Series by Brent weeks. In moments where there won’t be tension and he has to get a character from point A to B, he often leaves off the previous chapter with some large revelation, some grand conflict, or some serious question that the character must address. This makes your reader turn that page, even if the current chapter isn’t as intense. Why? Because you’ve instilled a kind of artificial anxiety in your reader and that makes them want to know just what the hell happens.

This is actually why, despite some readers hating cliffhangers… I still use them all the time. All of my favorite books and series utilize these tools and it’s one of the reasons I love them. A good story keeps you on edge, keeps you anticipating all the time… but…

4. Never give them everything they want.

Okay, maybe not never, but if you always keep things predicable and similar, if the character always get’s out of danger, or their assumptions are confirmed, your boring the hell out of your reader and probably out of yourself writing it.

Cliffhangers don’t have to resolve in ways we might expect. You might leave your character surrounded by what they think is an enemy, but maybe they are allies in disguise? Maybe they are an enemy but they can’t recognize the main character? The point is, if you always use cliffhangers in the same way, if you foreshadow too much and make things obvious, it will kill the tension.

Tension is about keeping the reader on their toes, about giving them another reason to turn the page. But, if you use too much tension you also risk overwhelming your reader. Find the flow or rhythm, let your pages breath a little, not everything has to be constantly tense.

What are your favorite ways of building tension? What books do you think do it best? Comment and let me know.

World Building Part 4: Six Things To Think About When Constructing Myth In Fiction

Fantasy, Goddess, Mystic, Serpent, Snake, Woman, Myth

Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.

Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here

1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.

Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.

Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.

When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.

2. Myths structure our idea of purity

Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.

Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.

Myths may or may not include the following

  • What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
  • What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
  • Marriage patterns
  • Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
  • Important dates
  • Important people
  • How we mark or think about time
  • What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
  • How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
  • How was the world created?
  • Will it be destroyed? When? How?
  • What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
  • How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
  • Is there free will?
  • How many lives do we have?
  • What words are sacred/dangerous?
  • Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
  • What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?

You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.

3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power

Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)

Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.

4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality

Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.

In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…

5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity

Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.

And one final thing…

6. Myths are not monolithic

If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.

If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.

Happy Writing!

Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!

Unfinished

White Jigsaw Puzzle Illustration

A few weeks ago I went on an anthropology retreat with the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology. What is an Anthropology Retreat? It’s a space for anthropologists and other social scientists to converse over issues in the field, their research, and trade ideas.

One of the things this retreat often features is a poetry writing workshop… The theme of the retreat was unfinished, and so I wrote a short poem in relation to the weekend and the concept that our work is always changing and growing and mutating. Here it is.

Unfinished…

Unfinished?

Why do we always feel like something unfinished leave us so diminished?

And How did it become an obscenity to consider our identity a fluent and ever changing entity?

It seems as if all of the threads that we must contend with force us to apprehend our knowledge

and suspend our disbelief that life has some kind of clear beginning and clear end.

It’s taken me a long time to accept the concept that I am part of the whole, not an individual soul or that I do play a role in this oppressive system of capitalistic control

I have to ask myself, What is the cost of this toll?

Life and culture is constant progress and process

I think the dead ends haunt us like an absess because we obsess with the mess and stress of maintaining false binaries that we aren’t allow to transgress

One or the other back and forth west and east, south and north.

We have to fit things in neat boxes before we set forth

But in outer space there is no single direction and often the project left unfinished is no real transgression

And sometimes the way forward is to stop and consider your own reflection

Especially if you yearn to learn the lessons as you pull that wheel for a uturn

But really, it’s okay to turn back and leave something unfinished

And since not much rhymes with unfinished? That’s where this poem is going to stay