One of the toughest things to do in fiction or creative nonfiction writing, in my professional opinion, is to create strong, believable tension. Without tension—between the protagonist and a villain, the protagonist and him/herself, the protagonist and the environment, etc—you really don’t have much of a story. And it’s unlikely readers will want to follow you far through the jungle of your narrative.
Tension seems to be lumped in usually with plot. I agree that plot and tension often go hand in hand, but I also think that stories which essentially lack, for the most part, any real sense of “A-plus-B-equals-C” type of standard plot (meaning one thing happens which forces another to happen, etc, a sort of “causes and conditions” situation) can still grab readers’ interest and hold our attention for 250, 300 pages…as long as you’ve got real, authentic tension.
Some obvious examples: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir); The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway); On the Road (Jack Kerouac); and Dave Eggers’ latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier. There are, of course, many, many other examples, both contemporary and from the past. I mention only a few here for the sake of example.
In all of the works listed above, there is, in the “standard” sense, a lack of “plot.” These tales are really more “anecdotal” in nature: This happens, then this, then this, then that, and on and on. Left bare-bones, this would bore the fur off a chipmunk. But they all have a few things in common: Fantastic writing; fabulous, three-dimensional characters that are believable; a rich, authentic setting; driving motivations from the protagonist; a deep, richly told interior landscape for the main character, as well as high emotional stakes and empathy; and, last but definitely not least: They all have, in various forms, strong, palpable tension that drives the story forward.
In the case of A Heartbreaking Work, the tension is between the narrator’s youthful self and his new self after his parents have died; between the youthful idealist and the fresh, startling kid suddenly thrust into the role of a parent; between who he once wanted to be and who he now must be, in order for him to successfully survive emotionally and to raise his younger brother. In The Sun Also Rises, we see the protagonist in a constant state of tension between his love for Bret—the woman who is the center of almost all the characters’ desires—and his knowledge that she must carve her own path, be with who she wants, be her own woman; between his own desire to write and be a serious author and yet to be with his wife and build his family; between his yearning for the United States, his home, and being in Paris, his temporary literary hideout. In On the Road, the tension is between Sal Paradise’s need to run away, be “on the road,” and his need to write and be a successful author; between his sort of male existential lust for Neal Cassady’s semi-questionable friendship and his desire to be free of the road-warrior he sometimes wants to be rid of and doesn’t always understand; between his childish, naïve urge to do everything and be everywhere, and his growing notion that, to be a man, he must, at some point, slow down, settle, get married, and grow up.
In Heroes of the Frontier, the tension is between the protagonist’s wavering belief that she is doing right by her kids, taking them out of school and driving them around the lurid, lush landscape of Alaska, and knowing that she is being an irresponsible mother; between her need to prove to herself that she is a good person, a worthy human being, and knowing that, at least in part, in her mind, she is partially broken, due to her harrowing upbringing; between her sense of self love and self worth and the sense that she is not worth much at all, possibly nothing in fact; between her past and her present; between her desire for being around people and her need to be alone.
The above list is not, of course, any kind of definitive or by any means exhaustive list of tension, the books that include it, or of all the forms of tension the books mentioned take advantage of. It is only meant as a brief example.
So, the question arrives: How do you create tension? What, exactly, is tension anyway?
Tension creates drama: friction; movement. Like two sticks rubbing together to create fire. And that’s what you want in fiction or memoir: A burst of flames. We can all relate to things we want but can’t quite ever have. Perhaps by the end of the story you’ve written the character does finally get that thing, whatever it is, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.
Think of a character. Now make sure that character wants something. Your whole book, or a significant portion of it, should include your character trying to get that thing and not achieving it. If you design a fully-rounded character, one that we care about, one that’s fully fleshed-out and realistic, then we should be able to empathize with that created character’s wants/desires. Once we care, you’re in. Now all you have to do is find that tension.
Example. Right now I am rereading Philip Caputo’s brilliant 1977 Vietnam War memoir, A Rumor of War. There is clear, obvious tension in this book from the beginning, of course: They’re preparing to go from peacetime America to war-torn Vietnam. (Actually, he was one of the first Marine platoons to actually fight in Vietnam; he went there in early 1965, when we were supposedly still “aiding” the ARVN (South Vietnamese). That strategy soon changed.) So, in this case, there’s almost a sort of built in sense of impending tension. But he also finds many other methods for demonstrating tension: The tension between the narrator’s sense of morality and what he is commanded to do in war; the tension between humanizing the enemy (The Viet Cong) and seeing them as brute savages; the tension between following orders without question and internally questioning why it was they were there, fighting a horrific guerilla war in a faraway country in Southeast Asia. There are many more forms of tension in Caputo’s book. Another one I really enjoyed is his use of tension between himself (and the other soldiers) and the environment; the jungle. He describes the jungle as “malevolent,” as if it were trying to crush them into powder; the brutal, bashing heat as a terrible, lecherous demon, intent on murdering them; the sun as a horrid thing, wanting nothing more than their demise.
The point here is that, in any way possible, create real tension between your narrator and either external and/or internal forces and I can almost guarantee—again, as long as you have the other essentials of story: well-written prose sentences; well-rounded, believable characters; character and story arc (transformation); a hero’s journey; point of no return; strong setting; etc—that readers will most likely want to keep reading, turning the page again and again and again. Have a strong, well-written story or strong characters and setting etc with NO tension? You’re unlikely to get very far with readers.
Think about real life: the uncle who drives you nuts; the parent who presses that annoying internal button every time you see them; that prize or award you yearn for but never get; the self love you can’t quite seem to ever grasp; the love from Dad you can’t ever quite seem to get, at least not in the way you desire; the job you want but are somehow blocked from; the need to be two conflicting people somehow, one at work, one at home with your partner; the need for external validation and never getting it; the action of leaving something (a job, a boyfriend) and then feeling like you can’t live without them, but knowing you must, etc. The list could go on and on and on. The point is: Create that character, that story framework/foundation, and then inject tension into it. You’ll be grateful you did.
Hurdles are one thing—obvious preventatives that get in your main character’s way—but some tension can be more subtle and interior. Either way, learn to traverse the lush landscape of a character’s inner and outer world, using tension, by questioning your own life and experience: What has led to your own true tension? Answer that and you’ve got a start. From there keep digging. Read novels and memoir that work well with tension. Watch movies that use it. Most good ones do. I just watched The Big Short finally. There is constant tension in that movie: Between the guy who knows what’s going to happen and his boss; within that guy’s own internal machinery (whether he made the right choice, once he learns how corrupt the lending corporations are); between the banks and the people requesting insurance pay-outs; between the two younger guys banking on the whole Jenga tower falling and their backer (Brad Pitt); between the lenders themselves and the idea of failure; and on and on. This drives the emotional power of the story. Most films do this on some level.
Play with this. If your novel/memoir lacks tension, go through the MS and find out where you can add it in. It is key.
If you need a second pair of eyes, I do developmental book editing. As a former literary agent’s assistant, a published writer (with a degree in writing), and a fine-eyed scanner of literary prose, I can locate those areas which are lacking in plot, pace, character-development, voice, dialogue-believability, logic, etc. I can help you find areas to add in tension, to push the level of internal/external dissonance to a higher apex, to move your story forward using fictive techniques of story arc, character arc, and strong setting. Email me at: email@example.com. I work with YA and adult book and will look at just about anything other than middle grade or poetry, etc. I work solely with novels and memoir.