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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tension on Every Page

A couple years or so ago, I was reading a writing resource that advocated listing various elements about each scene in your novel--I no longer remember exactly what, characters, time, whatever, and conflict. That is, what conflict was occurring in each scene. It said, in passing, that any scene without conflict should be scrapped.

At the time, I blew it off. It was just the sort of impracticable writing advice that vague how-to's were full of. How can you possibly have conflict in every scene? Sometimes you have other things you need to achieve in a scene--bring characters together, have a character investigate something, lay the groundwork for something you're going to need later, you name it.

Of course, that's how I ended up writing a 120,000-word YA novel with lots of boring scenes that didn't carry their weight. *grin* Over the course of cutting off forty-thousand words, I slowly and painstakingly learned that this was actually pretty good advice. But conflict doesn't have to be between people. And even if it is between people, it doesn't have to be overt. So what we're talking about here isn't so much conflict as it is tension. If I'd understood that, I would have written a better novel in the first place, and the revision process wouldn't have been as painful as it's been.

I've done a pretty good job of pulling unnecessary scenes, but this week I ran across a bit that wasn't working for me. Chris is staying with Michelle and Paul Adams, the marks. He needs to stay with them long enough for a relationship to form that will make it hard to con them, and I need to show this relationship developing. Chris also needs to learn the location of the key to a rifle case in which the Adamses keep some Civil War-era rifles Danny and Steve want to steal. So quality-time relationship-building, and finding stuff. The scenes are necessary, but where's the conflict come in?

In retrospect the answer is pretty obvious. What I'm doing is trimming back on the description, of which there's too much, and ramping up the tension. The tension comes from Chris misinterpreting every signal he gets from the Adamses, based on a lifetime of interaction with Danny and Steve:

Paul obviously wanted to chat, but Chris had no idea what to say. Paul seemed nice and sort of funny, but other than baseball, Chris had no idea what he was interested in. And Chris knew next to nothing about baseball.

Well, it was something, anyway. “So do the Braves play again soon?” he asked.

Paul chuckled. What, was it a stupid question? “From April through September, they play nearly every day.” Of course it was a stupid question. Chris felt his face heat up. Whatever, I don’t really like baseball anyway.


Chris got the sense Paul was trying to get him interested in something--several times, he offered to buy Chris whatever he was looking at. Chris declined as politely as he could each time--although it was particularly hard to say no in the bookstore. He’s not really being generous, Chris reminded himself. He’s trying to buy you. Anyway, it was easy to be generous if you were rich; it didn’t really mean anything. Chris’s father would probably have loved to buy him all sorts of things, if he had the money. Probably.


When they got to a store that sold nothing but baseball caps, though, Paul insisted on buying Chris a fitted Atlanta Braves cap, and would not listen to his objections. Fine, thought Chris. You’re not buying it for me. You’re buying it for you.

Here's another bit:

Finally, mercifully, the game was over. Paul made a show of throwing away the scorecard, saying it didn’t matter who won or lost, they were just playing for fun.

“Fifty-three to eighty-four,” muttered Chris.


“Fifty-three to eight-four. You won.” In case you weren’t sure. “If you didn’t care what the score was, why did you write it down after each hole?”
Paul held out a placating hand. “I don’t know. They give you a card and a pencil, and it’s just what everyone does. It didn’t even occur to me not to. But it’s not like it matters. Who cares who won?”

“Sure,” said Chris. Whatever you say.

Last one, I promise:

Ah, so that was it. “Well I’m sorry,” said Chris. “It looks like you’ll have to find some other kid to live out your sports fantasies through.”

Paul’s eyes widened. He’s going to hit me now, thought Chris.

Anyway, these aren't quite as cleaned up as they could be--I see some repetitive phrasing and way too much use of the characters' names--but the point is that I get all the interaction and relationship-building. In fact, the relationship-building is arguably deeper because now it repeatedly sets up Chris's expectations and repeatedly showcases how the Adamses are different from the kind of family he is used to.

I wish I'd had a better understanding years ago of how conflict and tension could--and should--underlie any scene, even one that wasn't overtly about disagreement.

1 comment:

Erik Slaine said...

Great thoughts, and for the most part I have to agree. But I keep thinking that there must be an exception to this. Perhaps passages of poetic description have their own place, but I can't think of many instances that haven't bored me away from a story. "Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury might be an example. Lots of description, but then again, it's seen through the eyes of the very young protagonist, and magic is everywhere.

Good food for thought. Tension is certainly what I strive for. Someday I might even achieve it.