That Ever-Present Tension
August 20, 2017
What if uncertainty and tension and confrontation were good things? How might your life improve if you used them as tools? If you stopped running away from them and recognized them as fantabulous forces for change?
I was giving a creative writing lecture last month on the topic of plot when I started thinking on this subject. Plot, for you non-readers (you should be ashamed!) or writers, is the scaffolding that holds a story together, that steady diet of conflict that keeps you turning pages.
Plot is all about change.
Change has to happen in every chapter, which means there must be some kind of conflict or tension or question presented that gets resolved to some degree.
To keep a story moving forward, our job as writers is to place our main characters in a tree and throw rocks at him or her. We need to make their life super duper complicated.
Dan Brown, one might note, did not make millions writing about some dude with a ho-hum office job who digs surfing the Internet until bedtime each evening. His inadvisably curious protagonist couldn’t sit with a cup of coffee for five minutes without some bad guy sneaking around the corner looking to bean him with a crucifix.
What happens to the characters, and what happens in the characters is what keeps the reader riveted. That ever-present tension is what keeps things interesting.
Herein lies the lesson: Like good writers, we shouldn’t run away from tension, we should use it to our advantage. We should use it to create necessary change.
We nice folks have a very bad habit of letting bad behavior slide because we don’t like calling it out and making the perpetrator feel uncomfortable. If we do so by accident, we spend the next five days bending over backwards making it better for them.
- We give in to our children’s ridiculous wishes because we don’t want them to cry or pout. To end up hating us ‘til the day we die.
- We backpedal, or soften our statement to a point of negation, when our spouses don’t take kindly to our (appropriate) criticism.
- We bite our tongues when our parents say something that makes us feel downright shitty. Again.
- We ignore the rude waiter, or the nosy neighbor, or the client who forgets to pay because we don’t like confrontation.
- We succumb to our bad habits and addictions, rather than allow ourselves to be present to our negative feelings.
Without tension there is no change.
Without tension, what could happen to the characters in our life—our selves, children, spouses, parents, neighbors, and friends—and what could happen in them never has the chance to take place.
Instead they stay the same. Instead we feel resentful. Instead we complain.
Our life is our story.
Are you creating a Dan Brown page-turner? Or is your protagonist glued to the tube eating potato chips?
Tension. It’s a great tool. Get good at it.