In an interview for The New York Times (September 25, 1977), John le Carré explained to Michael Barber that a good story begins with conflict: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” Then he went further. “I don’t think that there are very many good writers who don’t live without a sense of tension. If they haven’t got one immediately available to them, then they usually manage to manufacture it in their private lives.”
If this is true, I’m in trouble. Over the years I’ve invested a lot of energy trying to lessen the tension in my world. Isn’t this what doctors and psychologists advise? Lower the tension. Calm down. Create a sense of harmony.
But what works in real life does not work in the world of fiction. And even if writers don’t manufacture tension in their private lives, they must create it in their novels. Lots of it. Because tension is what keeps the reader turning the pages.
Yesterday I attended a Donald Maass workshop called “Fire in Fiction,” sponsored by COFW (Central Ohio Fiction Writers). With apologies for oversimplifying the dense, seven-hour workshop, the “fire” in fiction (Maass says) comes from character and conflict. Conflict between characters. Conflict within a character. Conflict on every page. Conflict is tension, and tension is what makes certain novels, regardless of genre, stand out from the crowd.
It isn’t difficult to see tension in the action and dialog of le Carré’s spy thrillers. But tension must arise also from subtler layers such as character, setting, and even word choice. Maass calls this “micro-tension”—not plot conflict or scene goals, but the “moment-by-moment, line-by-line uneasiness in the mind of the reader,” relieved only by continuing to turn the pages.
Maass recommended an interesting technique. Scramble the pages of your manuscript, he said, and then revise them page by page, in random order, making certain that there is tension on every page. Here’s the problem: I really want to be finished with this “final revision” by March.
Oh dear. I’m starting to feel tense.
If you want more information, read Maass’s wonderful books on the craft of writing (available from Amazon and Writer’s Digest): The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing 21st Century Fiction.