More About Tension

In my previous post, I considered literary agent, Donald Maass’, statement that “tension on every page” is the key ingredient of successful fiction.  I proposed an experiment:  open a few of your favorite books to random pages, (avoiding the obvious chills-and-thrills moments exemplified by the poster) and see if there is tension on that page.  I said I would try it with some of my favorite novels.

I’ve posted about all four of these books before.  The first two are YA fantasy novels I have read and enjoyed three or four times.  The last two are recent reads, adult fiction, that I’ve only read once but found compelling.  So here (drum roll) are my results:

Lirael (2001) by Garth Nix.

Lirael is the story of a seeming misfit and washout from a magical sisterhood, who is actually destined to spearhead the defense against an army of zombies.  Although the climax comes in a sequel, Nix breaks all kinds of rules by devoting the first 450 pages to the coming of age of Lirael and her cousin, Sam.  Three-quarters of the book passes before the battle is joined.  So why have I read this book so many times, and why do I still enjoy dipping back into certain sections?

For one thing, even Lirael’s lesser battles matter and carry public as well as private consequences.  Nix also gives us regular updates on the bad guys, so we know a storm is brewing.  For the “tension on every page” test, I opened to one of many instances where Nix reminds us of the growing menace and Lirael’s nagging self-doubts:

“It’s not so simple,” interrupted a stern-voiced Deputy, bearing down on them like a huge white cat on two plump mice.  “All the possible futures are connected.  Not being able to See where futures begin is a significant problem.  You should know that, and you also should know not to talk about the business of the Watch!”

The last sentence was said with a general glare about the room.  But Lirael, even half-hidden behind a huge press, felt it was particualrily aimed at her.

As a how-to tidbit, we have a fine example of Maass’ comments on the power of threatening images to ramp up the tension in “quiet” moments.  The Deputy does not just “approach” the girls, she “bears down on them like a huge cat on plump mice!”

The Dream-Maker’s Magic (2006) by Sharon Shinn

I reviewed this favorite here on December 10, 2010.  This randomly chosen passage really needs no additional comment – it is a great illustration of Maass’ conviction that disagreement is the factor that most easily spices up dialog:

She thinks of him as her brother,” Sarah murmured to me one day as I paused in the act of wiping down a table to frown over at Gryffin and Emily.  “There’s no need for you to be jealous.”

Now I was frowning at Sarah.  “I’m not jealous,” I sputtered.  “I’m – what?  I don’t care if they’re friends.  Jealous.  That never occured to me.”

Sarah was smiling a little.  “Oh.  I’m sorry.  Well, maybe you’re frowning because you have a headache or something.”

“I’m not frowning,” I said, giving her a fierce smile.

The Cypress House (2011) by Michael Koryta

If I had to classify this book, I would call it a supernatural thriller, which makes its inclusion here a little unfair.  After all, thrillers have more chills and thrills than other genres, by definition.  Still, we are talking of “tension on every page,” not adrenalin on every page, which is impossible.  My criteria was, tension in a spot where “nothing is happening,” and this is what I found with a random flip of the pages:

He sat there for a while and looked at the stone.  No words of sorrow or love marked Isaac’s stay in this place.  Just those dates, and too short a time between them.

That was all right, though.  It wouldn’t have troubled Isaac, Arlen knew that.  This life was nothing but a sojourn anyhow.  A temporary stay, that of a stranger in a strange land.

“Love lingers,” Arlen said, and then he straightened, put his jacket back on so that it covered his pistol, and left the graveyard.

The Forgotten Garden (2008) by Kate Morton

Donald Maass devotes an entire chapter in his Workbook to the problem of backstory as a tension-stopper, and suggests various ways around it.  One of them is to open with a minimal amount of needed history and sprinkle more in later.  That is exactly what I found when I opened this book to Chapter Fourteen, with the heading, “London, 1900,” where we meet the third of three major characters:

Despite its meanness, the room above the Swindells’ shop was the only home Eliza Makepeace and her twin brother, Sammy, had ever known, a modicum of safety and security in lives otherwise devoid of both.  They had been born in the autumn of London’s fear, and the older Eliza grew, the more certain she became that this fact, above any other, made her what she was.  The Ripper was the first adversary in a life that would be filled with them.

It was interesting to happen upon this passage as it reminds me of several writing friends who are quite averse to narrative.  I think it has to do with a misunderstanding of the advice to “show rather than tell.”  There are times when skillful telling is exactly what a story needs.  In Morton’s hands, it is hard to imagine a more economical way to paint the initial sketch of a girl who constantly battles to rise above difficult circumstances in a difficult time.  Morton later shows us in detail what she tells us here, in a scene where Eliza and Sammy play the “Ripper game” to try to deal with their fear.


I tried this experiment with other books too, and found the very same thing – some sort of tension, mystery, anxiety, discomfort, or unease everywhere.  Maass supplies a name for a factor I never quite saw in such sharp relief before.  Sure, I knew a page-turner when I had one, but I didn’t quite know how the magic was brewed.  Here is a concept and a field guide that makes it easier to spot the quarry, like when you suddenly notice a lizard hidden on a pile of rocks.  Maass tells me it’s simple, and in these examples, it is.  Now it is just a matter of creating this page-turning tension, one word and one page at a time..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s