Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Global Warming, Sex, Music and Writing

May 28, 2008
I was thinking about the weather recently--I'm in Michigan and Sunday it was 86 degrees, Monday it was 44, and last night we had frost (so we covered all our plants), but it's supposed to rise to the mid-60s today. Even for Michigan, which has screwy weather in general, this is odd for the end of May.

And there sure have been a lot of tornadoes, haven't there?

I'm not a meteorologist or a climatologist, but I'm a believer in global warming (and have been since the 1980s). Whenever we get cold weather like yesterday, there's some smartass who says, "Ha! No such thing as global warming."

Uh-huh. Here's something I know about the weather. It's a huge, complicated system. And you know what huge complicated systems do? They relieve tension. Heat, in the vocabulary of global weather systems, is tension. A hurricane, for instance, essentially takes heat absorbed in the water during the warmest months and moves it somewhere else--releasing tension.

Rising tension, release.

Know where I'm going here?

Sex is about rising tension and release.

Music is about rising tension and release.

Writing, my friends, is about rising tension and release.

Anybody reading this ever have something rejected by an agent or editor with the phrase: lacks tension?

There are a lot of different types of tension in fiction (and sex, and music, and weather...), from our choice of words, to the plot, to the interactions of the characters.

Frankly, blowing things up and creating tension by showing a stalker, murderer, bomb, man with a gun, etc., is pretty easy.

And yet, the agent, editor--or worse, readers--might still say, "Lacks tension."

So, in most cases, this means there's something about the characters and their interactions (and quite possibly your writing in general--remember, use good verbs, not adverbs and adjectives) that lacks tension. If the reader doesn't get invested in the character, the story can lack tension.

I read a friend's manuscript a year or so ago and I found myself using the phrase, "It lacks tension." Then I told him why I thought so. Everybody got along too well. Even when the main character had problems with people, they were nice about it. That's a pretty nice world (although don't you know people that like to screw with people and get everybody's dander up just because they're bored and they like a little excitement?), but it makes for bland fiction.

Here's my example: any Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly. Harry is driven. Harry doesn't get along with his supervisors, his girlfriends, his partners or most people. It's because he's driven. He's on a mission and he knows it. He's obsessed. Anyone who stands between him and his mission--solving murders--is a problem. I mentioned this to Michael once when I interviewed him and he sort of dryly said, "Have baggage, will travel."

Not all characters need to be like Harry (god forbid). But all characters need problems and they need obstacles that they need to overcome... whether it's a cranky boss, a lazy partner, smart-mouthed children, overbearing mother, or the sweet-little old lady who just wants to talk when you're trying to get to your job interview. Everybody wants something--and it usually conflicts with someone else, and that's part of the key to tension.

Any examples?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

One of my writing mantras is "no word without conflict." I'm not sure if I really go to that extreme, or if the tension I create is good enough, LOL. But it keeps me focused.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

Nice post today. I was in a bit of a quandry of how to start a new scene and your thoughts sparked some good ideas. I have to continually remind myself to make life more difficult for my characters. Nice is boring.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think most of us tend to take it too easy on our main characters, but when we really dump on 'em, the stories get a lot better.

9:54 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

Mary and I are too kind to our characters. Mary is soft-hearted. When I read Crime and Punishment a few months back I was struck by how every scene was tense, even with very little overt action and violence and it was because every character seemed to be in some way at odds with and in a confrontations with every other character.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suspect being easy on our main characters happens even more to people who write series fiction.

When I recently Peter Abraham's "Nerve Damage" which is a standalone thriller, I was struck by just how much grief he dumped on his main character--a rare cancer diagnosis, the discovery of his late-wife's secret life, the murderous cabal out to kill (even though he was already dying), the side effects of the experimental treatment for the drug, the weather, his assistant's annoying behavior, his girlfriend's behavior...

10:32 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

Very helpful post!

1:48 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I have a Tension-o-meter (patent pending), with a red zone where all hell breaks loose and everything is on fire and smoking and molten hot, where all seems irretrievably lost.

At it's highest level, I want my tension to go just beyond that.

Great post, Mark!

2:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

It'll make you rich!

It cracks me up. My son, Ian (14) will be reading a book and I'll ask how it's going and he'll say, "All hell's breaking loose."

I usually say, "Well, isn't that what you want in a good book?"

2:36 PM  
Blogger Don said...

This is good stuff, Mark. Thanks. I like to think I've written in some tension, but I'm sure it will need a lot more.

Thanks for spelling this out so well.

3:15 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

I'm at the point in my life where I'll ditch a book if I lose interest. I'm the world's slowest reader and just don't have time for characters who don't interest me. I can put up with a lame/weak plot if I become involved with the characters.

I've read Nora Ephron's HEARTBURN at least twice. Great characters! Good tension, too.

Right now I'm reading Dan Fesperman's LIE IN THE DARK. It's a murder mystery, and the main character is a homicide detective in war torn Sarajevo whose task was like "that of a plumber fixing leaky toilets in the middle of a flood.". The premise alone is intriguing.

I almost ditched Hakan Nesser's BORKMANN'S POINT, set in Sweden. The writing -- or maybe its translation? -- was larded with tiresome phrases, like "no doubt" and "as it was." (Note to self: Watch for tiresome verbosity when writing.) Also, the tension was minimal and the characters were bland. But I had invested too much time and really wanted to know who the murderer was, so I persevered to the end. Good ending, but I'll think twice before reading his RETURN.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is loaded with some of the best characters in some of lamest plots. Who remembers who murdered whom? Who cares? I read her books for the characters -- all of 'em. And Evanovich is one of a very few who can write sex scenes well. Most writers suck at writing sex. It can kill a story.

After reading several of Connelly's books, which I loved, I ditched a Harry Bosch book after a couple of chapters because it seemed redundant.

Mary Karr's THE LIAR'S CLUB broke my heart. I recently got halfway through when I put it down, and I have not picked it up since. The book begins with a nice bit of tension, and although I knew in advance that I'd have to read 150 pages to learn what had happened, I just didn't care by that time. The bookmark is still in page 152, and I may yet finish the book. The unresolved tension tired me out.


4:33 AM  
Blogger sexy said...


8:27 PM  

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