Tension on Every Page (and all that crap…)

As you probably already know, I dislike rules. I don’t like people telling me what to do, and I especially don’t like people building a box around my creativity. It’s stifling. I can’t work that way. I’ve also read one too many posts lately about rules and how the new trend is barreling toward everyone ignoring them.

Yet, I don’t think we really are ignoring them. I think we like to pretend we are, but secretly, we’re looking over our shoulder at the rule makers (hmmm, agents, publishers, the marketplace, our fellow bloggers…) who keep yelling “If you do that your story is going to suck!”

And we quickly turn back around and pretend we’re ignoring them, but we delete that adverb anyway or cut the flashback or prologue or extra 10,000 words.

After judging all the entries for my short story contest, I realize there is always a need for discipline. Rules, maybe not so much, but discipline, yes. Stories can get sloppy around the edges and especially the middles. They can feel like jello, and I don’t like that feeling. I think one of the biggest problems I found with stories that didn’t make it into my final cut of “I think this is a winner” pile, was lack of discipline – attention to details, cutting unnecessary story, etc.

The difference, to me, between rules and discipline is this:

(RULE) – Hmm, it’s like a plug-this-here-and-it-will-fix-the-problem product. In fact, it IS a product. How many WRITING BOOKS have you read? Yeah, I thought so.

(DISCIPLINE) – It’s more like FIGURING IT OUT ON YOUR OWN and sticking with it, isn’t it?

See, I happen to believe that every story needs tension. It falls flat without it. I’ll read along in a story and about the time I realize I’m bored out of my mind I see that the story lacks one main element – tension. That’s a big RULE for me. But that’s for me. Your idea of tension is different than my idea of tension. We all like different things.

So I think you need tension, whatever that is. (And by the way, I don’t think tension means suspense. Suspense means you don’t know something. Tension is more like stretching. It’s uncomfortable. It means conflict and worry and your reader’s heart beating faster because they see that the character is going to lose something or never gain what they lost in the first place. The fact that your reader cares about your character and will keep turning the pages to get past that uncomfortable “stretching” probably means there’s some good tension going on. And that’s my lame attempt at 11:00 at night to explain tension).

So you think you’ve put tension in your story, but I’m still bored. Your other readers are bored, too, or at least you suspect they are. No one is publishing your story. There’s obviously a problem. Maybe not for you because you like what you’ve written, but for everyone else there’s a problem, and if you want to sell your story and have more than 5 people read it and enjoy it, you should probably change some things.

Please don’t go out and buy a writing book and think it’s going to solve everything for you. Sure, read it. Absorb it. Consider what it says. But understand that every word in there is what worked for THAT writer and what they think is good writing. The book isn’t going to make you a good writer. Your discipline is.

If your story lacks tension, go read a story packed with tension. Then read another one and another one and another one. Then go back to your story and you might see what it’s missing. Reading a book about tension and how to put it into your story will help you learn the rules, but on many levels it won’t get you far – unless you want to sound like a machine spitting out a mechanical story. Studying what works will get you somewhere. It will give you intuition where rules never could.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

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