Tension: it (probably) doesn’t mean what you think it means

The problem with laypeople “teaching” beginners writing terminology is that they teach English definitions instead of the jargonistic terms. Tension does not mean the feeling the viewer gets when a non-last girl in a state of undress walks into a dark basement backwards when a killer is on the loose.

Tension is an escalate-able sensation the prose creates inside of an invested reader. That feeling of tension is why a reader picks the book up again after putting it down to find out what happens next. A work about a character forced into a loveless marriage because reasons has as much need for tension as a work about exploding space stations.

“Admire my well-written prose” is not something a reader has to pay for when they can admire the well-written prose of a work that uses its language to tell a story they are willing to invest their time into reading. That exceptional work — some remembered decades or centuries after the author’s death — can create a masterpiece that doesn’t use X doesn’t mean that the average work doesn’t need X to capture their reader’s attention.

Once upon a time, there were fewer things a person could invest their attention into. But then, a new market exploded onto the scene. Suddenly, the person with attention became the commodity sold, not the consumer. With the internet and social media, a reader’s attention became even more valuable to someone else as a product.

A reader doesn’t just have to like the subgenre the book is written in; they have to like the book enough to get a copy of it and then find the time to read it with all the other demands on their time a modern life creates. That dedicated time has to be found between working, family obligations, a social life, sleeping and endlessly browsing the internet. A reader has to be intrinsically motivated to invest that time for the reward of finishing the work.

I think writers believe they start somewhere on this line segment and progress to the right:

I don’t think that’s the case. “Bad writing” — work an ideal reader of the subgenre would not like — takes skill. “I didn’t like this” is still a reaction. I believe most writers start somewhere on this line —

“I didn’t like” is a better ideal reader reaction than “This work didn’t make me feel anything.”

Once upon a time, speculative writing conferences had an “It Came From the Slushpile” panel where editors would read the openings of rejected slush submissions to the cackling joy of the audience. It assured the audience at least their work wasn’t included — unless it was included and they realized everyone in that room was laughing at what they thought was work good enough to submit. See: Jim Theis and the Eye of Argon.

TL;DR: Theis was a teenager who attended a speculative writer’s conference and lost a copy of his unfinished manuscript. His name or age wasn’t included. The work became the stuff of legends where readers would attempt to read its opening chapters with a straight face. To say the work was very poorly written would be an understatement. However, the work’s execution was full of passion. The author’s only crime was having a grasp that fell short of his reach. I don’t think Theis ever went on to write anything after it because of the reaction to his first work.

I think panels like that did almost as much harm to the general audience as they did to a member of the general audience who could have potentially heard their work being mocked. If a general audience member believed that most stories in a slushpile are of that quality, their competent work must stand out.

But most work submitted to a slush pile is at least competent. There’s usually always a character. That character usually has a concern. At least some portion of the word count is spent demonstrating how the character acts to solve their concern, and there is a conclusion in which the character succeeds, fails, or dies. However, to grab the first reader’s attention, something about the character’s effort has to impact them. They may not have the authority to buy the work, but they send it to an editor with purchasing permission.

A work’s tension comes from multiple aspects to create a single feeling in the reader. The voice or point-of-view of the character makes the prose more than just described video scenery. It’s an author writing in a subgenre with one foot in familiarity and the other in the unknown.

It’s a plot concern that feels engaging from the start but has the potential to swell parallel to the character’s growth. It’s a character making meaningful choices that have actual consequences that can’t just be handwaved away. Creative writing is a series of words on a page that makes the ideal reader feel their time and energy consuming it was well-spent.

Tension doesn’t exist because the work puts its character in peril. Tension exists because the author created a world the reader feels invested enough to empathize with the character and their journey. Things get complicated if the work doesn’t ask the reader to at least empathize with the protagonist.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s