Tension as breath — what I learned in my MFA but couldn’t share #1

There’s something about reading a huge quantity of unpublished fiction for the past twenty years to see a common mistake most writers make on purpose. It is very difficult to tell a story through rehashing events of what had already happened or what had happened when the protagonist wasn’t there to experience it. Or at least, it’s very difficult to do that and still have the story deliver something worth the reader’s investment of their spare time and spending money.

There was one line in the slush that just summed up that issue entirely. I can’t remember the author or the genre or what it was they dropped. Then once I saw it, I saw it at least once in most of the stories that relied on dialogue to do the heavy lifting of the piece. The sentence was:

Character almost dropped something in relief.

There must have been something tense going on before this happened but I can’t remember any more detail than this one line in it. But I remember this was the first emotion that the protagonist is recorded as having. There’s no build-up to the tension because the previous prose is showing the reader what the character saw and heard. There was no emotional connection to the events no matter how much relief we’re told the character had after the source of tension had been diffused.

There is no pleasure in taking a deep breath in if the reader hasn’t been asked to hold theirs for any length of time. Oral storytellers excel at telling stories in ways that engage the reader from start to finish. It is possible to capture that in story form but even the best talking-heads science fiction writer in Canada still knows to throw in car chases.

And writers who start with a character in action don’t get off without a scolding. It’s in media res, not in medio fine. The emotional investment readers build up through the story pays off at the climax. Starting the story in the climax of the action doesn’t give the reader any chance to hold their breath. Climaxes begin when the reader understands what’s fully at stake. Even in short fiction, it’s difficult to stop the action to explain why what happened just mattered and have the story not be as good as a story in which the reader already understood why that seventh egg shouldn’t have been dropped.

Tension is the breath of the story. No story can be all exhale.

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