Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Are You A Good Writer, Part III

January 28, 2009
Okay, class. Everyone raise your hand who has ever had an editor or agent or reader respond to your writing with some variation of: Lacks tension.

Yes, I have my hand raised. I bet all of you or most of you do, too.

There are typically a few reasons why this is so.

1. As yesterday's post alluded, it may be that your word choice, particular your verbs, are a little flaccid. You don't have to be writing a thriller to use tense words. Romance novels are filled with words like "swept away" and "surge" for a reason. Because they work better than "got emotional." Use a good verb instead of an adverb and a verb and your writing gets better and more efficient. Your word choices create tension and readers crave tension. What is sex but tension followed by release? Good writing creates tension, followed by release. Therefore, reading is sex!!!

2. Tease the reader. This means, if your writing lacks tension, you may be providing too much information too early. Don't frontload a scene with what's going to happen. When your mousy secretary with claustrophobia finally falls in love, it's natural that her paramour is going to be into spelunking. But you don't need to tell the reader all that in the first paragraph, first page, or first chapter. But you can provide clues. You can have her avoid elevators by taking the stairs. You can show her being very nervous or weird in the cramped copy room. In other words, make the reader wonder what's going on--all the time.

3. Conflict. A friend of mine had me read his manuscript a year or so ago. On a line-by-line basis he's a good writer, even a very good writer. But the manuscript lacked tension. Why? Everyone got along too well. Everyone was too nice. That doesn't mean he needed to turn his characters into crabby assholes, it meant he needed them to disagree about things, to have misunderstandings. One of the reasons I think Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels work so well is because Harry brings conflict with him wherever he goes. He's so smug and arrogant he alienates everybody because he's on a mission and nobody else is as intense and as focused as he is. Has conflict, will travel--that's Harry.

4. Another word for conflict might be obstacles. Fiction is about overcoming obstacles, big and small. It can be a group of terrorists trying to destroy the world, it can be Marcy the Mousy Receptionist trying to find love, it can be a gambler trying to win big. But it works so much better if the terrorists have a secret weapon, if Marcy has to overcome her claustrophobia, or the gambler is trying to raise money to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. Don't go easy on your main characters.

So... a good writer creates tension in word choices, how she places information, how she creates conflict, and the story structure and characterizations. Are you a good writer?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Dunno if I'm a good writer, Mark, but I used to have a motto: "Never write a word without conflict."

So I'm afraid I don't do any of that release stuff until the very end. I'm too afraid my readers will stop reading, LOL!

Come to think of it, my chapter this morning could use a dose of that motto.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

In addition to the things you mentioned, Mark, it's probably just as important to know what to leave out of a manuscript:

1. Too much backstory up front

2. Long descriptive passages

3. Tea, driving, showers...

Any scene that doesn't move the story forward or illuminate the character in a meaningful way is going to naturally lack tension. Scenes like that can usually be cut, therefore adding to the tension by way of their absense.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I interviewed Michael Connelly a couple years ago (if a name drops in the woods and nobody's there to hear it...) and he cited Kurt Vonnegut as saying in every scene someone should want something, even if it's a drink of water. And that even getting that drink of water presents your conflict.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, too much backstory up front would be how I suggest you parcel out info.

I think long descriptive passages are better if they're what I call active description. My son wrote a first chapter and asked me to read it and it was good for a 15-year-old, he was writing a lot more description. I suggested his next challenge was to get rid of passive description: He wore blue jeans and a yellow raincoat, and start using active description: He dusted off his blue jeans and adjusted his yellow raincoat.

As for the tea, driving, showers, etc., that probably falls under the heading of transitional material. It's easy to get carried away with minutiae of daily life. Unless, of course, there's poison in the tea, the way the person drives shows something about character (a stockcar racer who cautiously drives the speed limit in the right hand lane, for instance) or the person's having sex in the shower.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

...or the person's having sex in the shower.

Or getting stabbed to death!


7:14 AM  
Blogger Davin C. Goodwin said...


The more I read your blog, the more things are starting to "click" for me.

And with me, the "clicks" don't come easy... just ask Jude.

Thanks for the inspiration. And congrats on the Oceanview contract.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Like the famous cigar, sometimes a shower is just a shower.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Glad it's helpful & thanks.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I have problems with conflict, and I know it. I loathe bickering in real life. I loathe fighting. I would rather spend the rest of my life completely alone than waste a moment's breath on conflict over things I consider futile to have conflict about. Hence, when I write, I ALWAYS have "external conflict inpinges on hero/heroine" versus "external conflict impinges on them and that creates a conflict between them or internally." My characters always seem to be "true," never seem to be divided. They rarely have doubts. If a character tells their lover something, the lover rarely has issues of trust. My editors constantly have to drag internal conflict into my stories by pulling it out of me. And because I myself am rarely conflicted . . . it's like pulling teeth.

Case in point, when I worked with refugees teaching English/ESL . . . I was tireless, it was my passion, and if anyone in my life didn't understand that, then tough. There WAS no internal conflict. I never doubted what I was doing was "right" or doubted that I should be fighting for their rights. I had no internal conflict. The conflict was always with external sources of aid/charities/hospitals/schools where I was trying to get the families I worked with help.

It's a model for my life and it's NOT a great model for fiction in the truest sense of conflict.


10:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm the same way. I've got that passive-aggressive thing going and I don't fight back, I just shrug and move on. It works for me and it makes for a smooth life, but it makes for boring fiction.

When I wrote about Theo MacGreggor, who is a lot like me, one of the complaints a reader had was he gave in too easily, she thought he should have fought back more.

One of the things that makes for easy fiction when it comes to my hero, Derek Stillwater, is he's in instant conflict with the bad guys, but because he's brought into tense situations as an outsider, like in the midst of a terror attack as a consultant, he comes into almost immediate conflict with the various people he's supposed to be assisting. Which sure makes your life as a writer easier.

One reader made a comment about him being a know-it-all, and I thought, well, yeah, in his particular areas of expertise, he is, and he brings a vaguely panicked sense of urgency to the situations--otherwise he wouldn't be called in at all--he's called into. He has no patience for protocol or chain of command in an emergency, which of course, makes him a pain in the ass to the chain of command.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Like Erica I don't like conflict and probably my characers get along too well because of that. Also I'm probably too fond of philosophizing, and observing, and other things that lack action or tension. Although, as you point out, tension can be achieved in different ways. I just finished Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse in which, essentially, nothing happens -- mostly people sit around and then have dinner. But is is actually filled with tension, with people's conflicting views of each other, likes and dislikes, clash of wills, even people's own contradictory thoughts battling.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Like most people (at least those of us whose personal growth arrested at the age of 13), I like lots of action and drama in my books and movies, etc. Still, I think tension and drama can be created without bombs exploding or people dying. I wrote Hot Money a while back and although there's a fair amount of mayhem, one of the things I was trying to do was create a book that felt like a thriller without all the violence, although there was some. I don't know if it succeeded, exactly, but I thought it was nice to write about something that didn't involve so much death.

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