Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tension's High Wire Act by Rob Walker

Quoting from Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, who really
understood conflict and tension -- "Conflict is the high-wire of
tension upon which fiction balances." Or is strung and weaved
into one's plot. Okay, paraphrasing but this makes sense.
Violence is not the same thing as tension or conflict, and
conflict is not exactly the same thing as tension. One can have
conflict between two people who love one another. One can have
tension between a father and daughter, mother and son, siblings,
etc., and it don't gotta turn into no violence.

Tension comes about due to conflicting character wants and needs.
Conflict - say two or more characters at direct odds over
opposite goals or desires. To make a story compelling and
thrill-filled, you must begin with a character that is obsessed!
Truly, deeply obsessed. And both your protagonist and antagonist
must have their own obsessions. Yes, in fiction, obsessions are
gold. Your hero must run the gamut of a story about his or her
goal(s), goals they'd die for! Or in the case of my next novel,
DEAD ON, goals Marcus Rydell would LIVE for (put his suicide off
for!). And when nature or another man or woman becomes an
obstacle to the goal(s) of character A, it is due to the conflict
created by charcter B who wants just the opposite. A "clash of
desires" as in a Clash of Titans! And this is true in romance
novels as well as suspense or thrillers, horror novels, science
fiction and desent historical novels.

Don't believe me? Think of your favorite book of all time and
ask what did Atticus Finch most want in the story, even more
important, what did Scout want most? Father wants...daughter
wants. In any given scene, a conflict may exist between Atticus
and Scout or Jem. What did the narrator as child want from her
father? To understand her father, to "get" human nature, to make
sense of people? Who stood in her way? Her own innocence and
lack of years on the planet, her own innocence to the evil that
men do. Take the tense plot about Ahab and the White Whale --
Moby Dick. What did Ahab want? What caused the tension in this
fish tale? What was Ahab's most passionate obsession, and what
force of nature kept him from it? The whale is a force of nature
that fights for itself against Ahab and Ahab wants it dead for
having taken his leg and having destroyed his last ship (and crew
but they're expendable! as is the new crew and ship). The
tension is the highwire, the plot upon which all this is played
out. The plot is the thread upon which conflict and tension are
balanced. Think of Huck Finn having to fight for his freedom
from his pap, the Widow Watson, Hannibal, Missouri, society,
civilization. He has to fight his way out of each episodic
problem or conflict keeping him from being free, his
obsession--mirrored in Negro Jim's obsession to "get free" along
with getting his family free.

Then there are the serial killers who are obsessed, the vampires
who are obsessed, the bad guys who are obsessed coming face to
face with the good guys whose obsessions are "positive"
obsessions, like Bat Man or Superman whose strength comes from
being equally obsessed at capturing and putting an end to the
villain and or his activities. The tension is in the chase, the
conflict is in the goals, and the violence, if it comes to that
comes at the clash--as when Ahab catches up to the White Whale,
or as when another obsessed character battles the sea, the
mountains, the planet Mars, or a werewolf, or a vampire, or a
twisted religious fanatic.

I love Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction. Great out of print
little book filled with great complete well thought out answers.
Told me how I do what I do and why I do it the way I do it. Felt
like Stern got into my head where even I had not gone (scary
place, really).

Hope this "defines" the difference between tension, conflict, and
violence. You can toss out the violence in a ficitonal work, but
you MUST have conflict and tension.

Happy Writing and Reading everyone, and for an early look at DEAD
ON visit my website!

Rob Walker

1 comment:

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