Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tension in Writing and M&M's

I had a question from a fellow author today that made me realize what comes easy to me, but is extremely difficult to others is creating tension in writing. A lot of things come naturally to me and not to others. But I do not do everything well or easily.

One writer will struggle with a sentence and even lose sleep over it, while I take a laid back approach. I play Scarlet O'Hara, from "Gone with Wind"...I'll think about that tomorrow. Maybe it's because I do my homework where my story lines are concerned. I do my character sketches with a rough mind or bubble map of where I want it to go and go with the flow. Well at my age with life taking away more than it's giving, I find myself looking in introspect at this craft I do. I hear my own clock ticking in the background on my mortality. Oh, the tension!!!

What does tension do in a story? It raises expectations. It moves the story further along. It makes the reader pant and turn the page without thinking, and get lost in the words. That's every writer's dream, isn't it?

Conflict- Conflict makes the world go round. That's what makes newscasts and tv shows watchable. If everything today was hunky-dory where's the challenge. It's also what makes you turn the page. It's the unknown entity of what's going to happen next. Who will be changed by their decisions and how that decision comes about. This is the creation of conflict.

There are seven different types- man against himself, man against man, man against nature, man against society, man against supernatural, man against machine. Man against himself is an internal fight. Man against nature is surviving a hurricane, man against supernatural is just what it sounds like-zombies, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, aliens,etc. Man against machine is like the Terminator series of movies. Man against society is like "Farenheit 451." Man against man is a standard story line good guy versus bad guy. Pick one or pick many as elements in your story within your story.

I can hear you now. I don't have fighting, or shoot-'em-up-bang-bang action scenes in my book...There are different types of fighting. Face it, we are a violent race.  We fight about everything...the clothes we wear, what channels to watch, what books to read, what we think, what we do or don't do. Just taking a breath of air is sometimes a fight.

You fight with yourself every time you do something you don't want to do or have to do me writing this blog when I want to be writing my stories. Mentally, you fight with others when you don't like something they say. Yeah, right! I'll believe it when I see it. You might never utter a word, but you are thinking it. Who hasn't had some snippy comeback to someone or other whether you've said it or not? Raise your hand? I'm looking around, nope not a hand in sight. See that wasn't so hard, now was it?

This creates tension. It causes you to root for the good guy at movies or in books and "hate" the bad guy. You are hinged on the outcome. You are creating empathy for your characters. You are putting the reader in the character's shoes.

But your hero or protagonist is a goodie-two-shoes, you say. Never does anything wrong. Has no vices or flaws. Does everything he is told to do without question...BORING and very unrealistic. Do you know anyone like that...except for maybe God, but even God flooded the Earth and destroyed the Tower of Babel to start over. Ours is a much easier task, create faults in our characters. Ones we can play off of in writing. Everybody has faults or flaws. Find your character's.

One of my characters, in "Escape from Second Eden" was deathly afraid of snakes. They are in Sri Lanka and the street vendor they meet is a snake charmer. Her children are fascinated. But all she can see is this cold, creepy to the point of making her skin crawl snake. Everything in her wanted to put as much distance between her and the snake as possible, and yet, she stands there watching until it was over frozen in fear. This is also one of my fears. Show me a snake and watch me dance away fast, hopping from one foot to another in high stepping fashion.  Conflict, yes although a short scenic one and yes, there are several snake scenes in this book. This character, although my main protagonist, has faults and flaws to expand upon. For your antognist, there instances of self-doubt, anger when things do not go the way he wants them, or the beauty of a plan coming to fruit. These all expose the character fuller and brings tension into the mix.

Overriding doubt. This is the art of storytelling. When you have two characters who are evenly matched and either can become the victor. Now, somewhere deep in our minds, we know the good guy is going to win, isn't he? Maybe, he will lose this struggle but win the overall battle.  Remember, your story is a war.  There are many battles in a war...some you win and others you lose.  Another example; your character is a small child reaching for the top of a high fence. Will she make it? You write the struggle she has, the attempts, the failures, and hopefully, she will succeed sitting on top looking down at the ground. This is tension.

The element of surprise is important. Don't take the reader where they want to go. You don't have to give a blow by blow until the ending of the event you are writing. Change it up, go somewhere else. Make the reader ask...what happened, and then wait for it. This is an old writer's trick. Yeah, I'm an old writer so I do it quite often. In "Zombie Apocalypse: Travelers," I end a chapter with a group of men, one is my protagonist, fighting zombies and running out of bullets. It's not until the end of the next chapter that I give the outcome. Of course, they win. I believe in happy endings. They have plenty of bullets left to do the job, but the reader does not know this while reading.  I ended "The Sacrificial Lamb" with an outside view of my protag's happiest moment with danger still lurking. I made many a reader say, "Oh no, you didn't!" SURPRISE! I get emails from readers about a sequel weekly because they want to know what happens next.

Make the stakes high. If they are everyday issues, who really cares? If it's survival? If it affects their whole world as they know it? If it rocks their very beliefs? If it changes everything? Then you have some pretty high stakes. Make a high wall for them to climb.  The tension is their trial in doing it.

The ticking clock, now this is an art form done very well by few authors. Time passing and time running out. Is there a deadline that things have to be accomplished? Will the character have to get married but has a list of things she wants to do before she weds. The ticking clock in the background brings immediacy to the story. It has to be now, not tomorrow. How will it be accomplished? Your character is climbing a rocky peak and there are crocodiles chomping in the water below, his fingers are tiring.

Enough about that. I may have missed some finer points, but you get the picture, I hope.

Another blogger I read posted today about lucky charms when writing. Personally, I do not believe in lucky charms, ooooh with a name like Murphey and not believe in lucky charms is Irish sacrilege. What I do believe in is Peanut M&M's! Now, I'm a diabetic so I do this in extreme type situations when I'm stumped and thoroughly frustrated in writing. I don't know what it is about the Peanut M&M's, but it works for me. I've tried the healthier peanuts, and straight chocolate, but do not get the same results.

I can pop a couple of these chocolate candies in my mouth and chew them up. Within minutes, the lightbulb goes off in my head and the fog lifts. I had thought it was a sugar level thing, but when checking, it's not. Do you have a food for thought?

Keep writing and loving the Lord.


  1. I lOVE peanut M&M's. I like to have a snack while writing but it varies, popcorn, chips, almonds, peanuts, mike and ike's. Yea, not so healthy. Good I don't have them every time.

  2. Sara, I know, right? I keep a small Rubbermaid container of M&M's at my desk while writing. Everything else tends to stick salt of gooey onto my fingers which is not healthy for my computer keyboard. LOL


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