Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Conference Notes: Mark Johnston on Tension

Mark Johnston, co-author of The Secret Agent, lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and the fact that his book opens with the words "The End" makes me really, really want to read it.

Shakespeare started Hamlet with two words: "Who's there?" In those two words, he introduced tension into his work.

"Tension," according to Jerome Stern, "is the mother of fiction." Johnston suggests Stern's book, Making Shapely Fiction, to new authors. The other quote Johnston used from Stern makes me think it will be a valuable purchase:

Characters don't merely face their enemies; they face themselves facing their enemies.

In writing, when you add one more reason for a reader to worry about a character—one more element of tension—then you also add one more reason for the reader to turn the page. Every action—even a boring action, such as getting up out of a chair—must lead to tension in writing.

Johnston said there were ten rules to tension:
  1. Start the tension as early as possible.
  2. Build tension to the climax with little or no downtime.
  3. Raise tension at the end of the chapter.
  4. If you ease tension at the beginning of the chapter, tighten it again quickly.
  5. Description over 20 words without tension is boring.
  6. Subplots with tension keep readers interested and add depth to characters.
  7. Tension should exist within all characters, especially within members of the same group, especially if that group is only 1 member.
  8. Plot devices can't seem like plot devices.
  9. Don't cheat the climax.
  10. Don't untie all the knots—keep some of the tension within the book.
Notes on make the rules work for you:

  • Rule 3: You don't have to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, just keep tension alive. Use the cliff-hangers sparingly. Consider how weak a cuss word is if every word the character uses is a cuss word; consider how strong a cuss word is if the character never curses.
  • Rule 5: Don't distract the reader with pointless description. If a detail is necessary to the action, then, by all means, keep it. But don't paint a backdrop that isn't important. Make your descriptions matter to the tension, plot, and character, to keep them relevant.
  • Rule 7: Show different sides of a person to add depth. Snow White is pretty one-dimensional; Harry Potter isn't. You don't need to add more characters to a room to increase tension, just add more voices within the same character's head to add that tension.
  • Rule 8: Don't let a character say something just because it's "in the script." Make the actions/words of characters make sense. If you have a scene (or book!) where the characters could solve their problems by just picking up the phone and calling someone, then that won't work. Scene has to be set up so that a reader can't solve it by saying "why can't he just do X?"
  • Rule 9: When you write the actual climax, always show, never tell. Make it immediate and powerful.
  • Rule 10: "Everything in this world exacts a price, even victory." Don't make everything too simple and happy at the ending. If your hero wins the ball game, have his ex-girlfriend walking away with the loser. In the discussion at the end of the speech, it was described this way: when you write, you add strings and ribbons of tension to the story. By the end of the story, you've tied those strings and ribbons into bows around the present of the story—but leave some hanging.

There was one final unwritten rule: Don't overstay your welcome. Draw out your climax as long as possible—but then end the book as soon as you can after the climax. Don't tell every single little thing. As Johnston brilliantly said:
Let the readers write the next chapter, that way it's not just your story, it also becomes theirs.
One thing I wish: that you could have heard Johnston speak for yourself. The rules and notes on tension are great, but if you could have heard Johnston deliver them...he's one of those rare speakers who talks with quiet elegance, and whose mere soft voice is enough to enrapture an entire room.
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