Friends, I'm starting a series of guest posts by talented young authors who have studied widely and thought deeply about the craft of writing.
Here is the first one, by Mike Kerlin.
"Tension on every page" is what literary agent Donald Maass reminds writers new and old when he signs their copies of his book Writing the Breakout Novel.
As a non-fiction writer, I wasn't sure if his book was for me, but, the
more I read Maass's book, the more I realized every reader loves
tension and every writer can convey it. That's because every life, in
fact or fiction, ripples with aspiration, conflict, and obstacles. To
understand just how important tension is to the fiction author, Maass
went through and analyzed years of fiction bestsellers. What he found
was that the bestsellers had one big thing in common: they combined fine
literary "voice" with good old fashioned storytelling that keeps
readers on the edge of their seats.
How can writers crank up the tension in our books? First comes a
breakout premise--what Maass describes as "a fictional world that exists
convincingly, wholly and compellingly apart and unto itself." It's the
"big idea" of your book that has four key ingredients: plausibility,
inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal. Many new
writers fall into the trap of relying on originality alone, but we need
all four ingredients to make our premise work. Then we must make sure
the stakes are as high as possible. That means mixing high personal
stakes for the protagonist with high public stakes, something big that
humanity as a whole stands to gain or lose. With strong premise and
stakes in place, Maass moves on to time and place. Make them important,
unique, and detailed, he says.
True tension springs to life in characters, though. Maass believes
our protagonists should be sympathetic, strong, likeable people, but
also complex. Antagonists must bring complex personalities to the
conflict too. To convey our characters' complexity, we can try listing a
bunch of their core motives and then writing a few scenes in which they
pursue reverse motives. Conflicted characters are tense characters, so
our readers read on. But our readers also need to see their newly
beloved characters endure some compelling plot twists. Maass claims
most writers shy away from the truly tense plot twists that readers
crave most. To get there, we should ask ourselves, "What is the worst
that can happen?" Then Maass tells us to make it even worse--kill our
favorite supporting character, create major crises in the core plot and
subplot, crank it up until we feel uncomfortable writing it.
Once our premise, setting, characters, and plot are pulsing with
tension, we need to add Maass's beloved "tension on every page." First,
that means cutting any slow piece of our story. Maass says, "How many
coffee breaks does your protagonist take in your current story? Any?
Cut them out?" Sounds easy, right? Just make our books big
shoot-em-ups with one cliched cliffhanger after another. Not so fast!
Maass has high standards for just what kind of tension sits on every
page. He tells writers to make their most tense scenes more compelling
by breaking them into pieces, like movie stills, and then describing,
for each piece, the surprisingly ordinary sights or counter-intuitive
thoughts that pass through our protagonist's eyes and minds. Even then,
a reader may not love every page if they don't fall in love with the
"voice," that elusive piece of writing craft that no one can define but
everybody wants. Maass says, "Voice is more than style. It is infusing
yourself in your story." He also tells us to "become impassioned about
your story" and "express convictions through your characters."
How do all of Maass's tips come to life in a real book? Let's take Shantaram,
the Bombay epic by Gregory David Roberts. The premise has us hooked
immediately: an escaped convict from Australia trying to make a life for
himself along the shadier edges of Mumbai. The stakes roll straight
from the premise and easily keep us hooked: Will the protagonist turn
his life around? More broadly, is redemption possible? We newer
writers keep hearing that our characters need to go through a
transformation. So we think Roberts has it easy. The protagonist will
just go from bad to good. But, as if he went through Maass's "reverse
motive" exercise, Roberts, early on, shows his protagonist healing
slumdwellers in one scene and then selling drugs to tourists in the
next. The tension escalates slowly, but we stick with Roberts because
we are confident the payoff will be big. It is, but we'll avoid
spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to read Shantaram.
Does good tension always require drugs, organized crime, slums,
knives, and guns? If we zip south and then ride the tenth parallel to
West Africa, Chinua Achebe proves over and over the power of context and
character to drive tension. My favorites among his books are Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and Anthills of the Savannah. In all three books, the huge public stakes provide plenty of tension: creeping political and religious colonialism in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God and then the long shadow of that colonialism in Anthills of the Savannah. Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart, and Ezeulu, in Arrow of God, are both strong, likeable characters, and yet an inner weakness (pride, perhaps) escalates the tension. Chris Oriko, in Anthills of the Savannah,
appears weaker sooner, on the other hand. As Achebe carries these
characters through his books, he could teach a whole Donald Maass
workshop on depicting "What is the worst that can happen?" Indeed, the
reader eventually learns to read on, not for quick resolutions of each
plot twist but rather to get to the next turn for the worst. Achebe
could easily rely on contextual forces alone for this effect, but it is
through his rich characters that he hooks us to the history lessons
behind his work.
I finished How to Write the Breakout Novel and revisited Shantaram
and Achebe's books determined to crank up the tension in my own
writing. I also promised myself to pause and admire the power of good
stories, in real life and imagined life.
Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant and freelance writer. He is a columnist for The Rio Times in Brazil. His writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer,
and several other publications. Michael is currently at work on a book
about Rio de Janeiro's favelas and a memoir about his father, a