tension does not mean what a lot of writers think

It’s another post where I mention Donald Maass, but this time, it’s about the one thing I think he got less than perfectly accurate. I’ve been to two of his workshops. In the workshop regarding Writing the Breakout Novel there were two things you had to walk out of the session knowing.

The first is, there should be no backstory for the first thirty pages. I agree 98% with this. To paraphrase Maass loosely, he said that reader doesn’t have to know about the character’s then to care about the character’s now in the now of the piece.

Those thirty pages are your book’s entrance. By the end of the third chapter, the world, stakes, character, and the character’s problems should be firmly established. There is no room in doing all of that to waste the word count needed to inform the reader of the why the character yet. They are who they are. Tragic past reveals can wait until the character has established who they have become because of it.

But, the 2% that doesn’t agree thinks that the author can hide any bit of backstory as long as it is attached to a sense. What a character smells, hears, tastes or sees (if they must) can remind them **BRIEFLY** of the same memory elsewhere in their history. I can’t even remember where I heard that.

It was his other piece of advice that I agree with in principle but not how he says it. He says there should be tension on every page. And he’s right. There should be. His suggestion of printing off the book, scrambling them so that the pages are non-sequential and then reading for a moment that matters is a great one.

My issue with the statement is about the “on the page.” Tension does not exist on the page. It exists in the reader as they put pieces of the story together in their head and realize the consequences of choices independent of the character’s understanding. Sometimes the realization is parallel to the character’s. Sometimes it can race ahead of what the character can’t grok yet. It can also lag behind what a character understands but isn’t ready to acknowledge yet.

But the word “tension” has the same problem “conflict” has. They mean different things IRL than in creative writing. Conflict isn’t arguments, it’s what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goals. Even a story where the only thing stopping the nicest character in the world from doing what they want is how it will be perceived can have as much conflict and tension in it as a Vin Diesel action vehicle.

It’s just a different kind of conflict and a different kind of tension. The reader knows what the character ought to do but they can still invest in the journey of a character who has to overcome who they have become as a person and tries to assert boundaries that must be respected in a healthy relationship.

No spaceship needs to explode to be a gripping story. The conflict is internally motivated by the character’s conflicting desires. The tension of watching a character struggle with the consequences of their choices while trying to change their expected outcome — for better or for worse — is felt inside the reader without a single space station imploding.

I realize that “there should be a moment on every page that impacts the reader as they put together for themselves how what is happening matters to the story” is a larger mouthful to say than “tension on every page.”

But if most underpublished writers’ working definition of tension only means the summer blockbuster kind, then only a fool would agree that a planet needs to stop existing on every page. It’s why teaching from the summit is so dangerous to learners. Experienced writers may know that conflict is what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goal and tension is how the reader feels about it, but their colloquial meanings are being taught in the MFA classrooms that produce the next generation of writing instructors.

If tension only means “the pacing of Sixth Sense or better” to a writer, they are not going to even try to have moments in their work where what is happening means more to the reader than the character experiencing it.

If tension is one thing, it’s that.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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