Writing tips: building bridges to readers with tension

Writing thrives on tension. It’s the force that pulls agents, publishers and readers into the book. It keeps them there – draws them into the story and drives them to turn the pages.

Sometimes that tension is overt. For all his faults Dan Brown was a master at it. Indeed, I think this was the only redeeming feature of his The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said).

Tension is also true of non-fiction. You have but to read anything by Dava Sobel to understand how tension can be written into non-fiction – and make it compelling. Or Antony Beevor. I disagree with many of his historical interpretations – in 2004 I appeared on New Zealand national TV, arguing against his ideas. But there’s no doubt about his skill as a populist and stylist – and his ability to pull readers on with tension.

Tension doesn’t happen by itself. It works itself into all sorts of levels in writing. In fiction it happens in the general plot. It happens in the characterisations and dialogue. It happens in the writing style. They don’t all have to be present – witness Brown, whose character at best were cardboard caricatures. Yet his stories were compelling.

I look on it in engineering analogies. In the early twentieth century, bridge-builders used vast tonnages of reinforced concrete to get load-bearing strength. There was no dynamic. Then someone came up with the idea of actively twisting the reinforcing, like winding up a rubber band. Hey presto – bridges got strong, dynamic, elastic and light. So did parking buildings and office blocks.

A picture I took a few years back of the pre-stressed ferroconcrete bridge at the mouth of the Hutt River. Lots of hidden tension giving dynamic to the form – and not a bad analogy for the way we can write.

That’s what writers have to do – tension with lightness. Let’s look at some of the ways writers can do this. All of these work together, of course:

1. Writing style
A. E. Van Vogt had a system of writing ‘hook words’, typically an adverb that seemed mis-placed but which created a sense of mystery. I could see the logic – he was trying to pull readers into the next sentence. I was never a fan of this system, because it created styling contrivances, but it does seem to work for some authors.

2. Micro-plot structure
Each scene in a story, or sequence in non-fiction, needs to have its own driving tension. There does not just have to be a reason why scenes play out as they do; there also has to be a thread to them –something that will, in some small or large way, create anticipation.

3. Macro-plot structure
The entire story needs broad dynamic tension to pull readers through. This is true of fiction and non-fiction. Think of it as those rods of twisted steel. You have to be able to wind it up across the span of the book.

4. Character interaction
Much of the tension in a novel – at all these levels – comes from the way characters clash. It doesn’t mean characters argue in every dialogue, but there needs to be a tension– a dissonance of goals.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


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