How much time do your characters spend in a neutral state?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what showing actually means for an upcoming article and along comes the perfect story to illustrate why showing is so important. It brought focus to a problem I’d been seeing inside and outside of my MFA for years.

Most unpublished fiction I’ve read, even if devastation is raining down on the heads of the protagonists, explores the range of human emotion between mildly annoyed, mildly alarmed and mildly content. Characters can be momentarily frightened, but the oppositional force that fright was caused by is usually resolved quickly. The average emotion expressed if spread over the word count is one of observer neutrality.

Donald Maass talks about macrotension and microtension in his book, The Fire in Fiction. Macrotension exists on the plot level. Will the heiress survive her fall to where the common folk survive in this particular YA dystopian novel? The reader will need to read on to find out. (Spoiler alert, she’s only alone for two paragraphs before love interest #2 and/or the threat love interest #2 chases off arrive.)

But microtension exists in the apprehension of the point-of-view characters as their actions may look to solve their immediate concerns but makes their situation more complicated as more plot is revealed. When the predominant method of story building the writer uses relies on dialogue instead of the character’s actions, keeping that microtension at the sentence level is infinitely more difficult.

The character in the moment of the now in the story is usually in a safe or a safe-for-now moment if they have time to such deep discussions. While they can be talking about anything plot-related, the task they have at hand is usually mundane at least to the character’s opinion of it.

When conflict arises in stories built on discussions, they’re more like jump scares in that there’s a momentary flash of alarm as the plot point reveals itself but it resolves quickly or it is just an alarming visual and the calm, cool conversation can continue. The plot point adds to the macrotension of the piece, but the new problem isn’t reflected in the microtension of the characters’ ‘now’ moment.

I think the metallic age of science fiction has passed. We’re into the gooey, fleshy age of it. The characters who populate our world have to do more than just experience its wonders. They have to live in it as well. In speculative fiction, the speculative nature of the story and the fiction aspect of the story should be as bonded as NaCl.

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