Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tension in Writing: Being In-"Tension"-al

Let’s face it. Life isn’t sugar and spice and everything nice. Life is full of tension.  A book needs to be filled with tension as well. That’s why we call the good ones “page turners.” We are spurred on in our reading by mounting tension. We are constantly asking ourselves, “What happened next?”

I am still working on this. As a writer I can see the “big problems” my characters face, but it's the smaller lurking questions and conflicts that keep a story moving. It’s hard for me. I am a Pollyanna. I know it.

So at the risk of causing myself stress and subsequent heart failure, I decided to step away from my Pollyanna self and focus on tensions in my life for a single day. I wanted to collect, if you will, the conflicts and dilemmas I face. These could be possible sources of tension for my characters.


I had to make a difficult phone call. My request was reasonable, but past experience taught me that a) the woman I needed to reach was seldom in her office, b) she rarely returned calls which meant I would have to keep calling, c) she rarely acknowledged emails which meant I had to keep calling, and d) she was not terribly personable and would likely give me a negative response in the end anyway. 

My husband hates making these calls. I am the one who is delegated to sit on “hold,” leave messages, and deal with difficult people. Conflict=Tension.

I had the joy of babysitting two of my granddaughters. The baby didn’t sleep much. Every time I laid her down she would squirm, fidget, and cry out. What was wrong? Was she hungry? Wet? Uncomfortable? Sick?

And did her parents think I was a bad babysitter because she didn’t get her nap. The poor thing looked so tired when her daddy got home from work.  Worry=Tension.

In driving to my daughter’s house to babysit, my fuel light came on. I was on the interstate and didn’t know how far it would be to find a gas station. Would I be stranded? How would I get to her house? Who could I call for help? I made it to the station, but later realized this represented a category of tension. Fear of the unknown. Fear=Tension.

I set goals for the weeks before Thanksgiving. I’m already behind schedule. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do before our family gathers for the holiday.

You see, since our children are all grown and married, we switch holidays with their in-laws. This year is our Thanksgiving and next year we have them for Christmas. Since we won’t celebrate the actual Christmas holiday with them this year, we will open gifts the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Our kids call it “ThanksChristmas.”

I need to finish my Christmas shopping and get ready for Thanksgiving. I am in the middle of major edits on my first novel, Breathing on Her Own, and I accepted a freelance writing job that is due the first week of December.

Over commitment leads to failure. Failure = Tension

One day. In a single day I experienced conflict, worry, fear, and failure.

In thinking about it, it wasn’t a bad day. There are other sources of tension I have faced from time to time. Someone I trusted telling me a lie, a broken relationship, an argument, stepping on the scale in the bathroom, bad weather, no cash in my wallet. Then there is the tension in our house when my husband reads the news on-line or watches a football game. Those times can be frustrating for me. Frustration=Tension.

And I didn’t even mention the headache I’m getting thinking about all of this. What sources of tension are on your list? How do you keep your story moving?

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