Monday, June 24, 2013

Openings - Tension, tension, tension

Readers always want tension. Authors know that.

Opening lines were the topic of the last post. While not just one line, openings, according to feedback received, require an extended discussion and we'll bite off another chunk here. While it's hard to generalize or slice openings into neat categories, I'm going to try assuming there is but one genre, which we all know is not true.

Opening tension, what's it about?

1. Tension versus grounding.

There is a general admonition for writers to create tension in the opening. That often runs counter to grounding, which I define as giving the reader an exact time, place, and context of the action.

To be vague, often creates tension. "Don't do that," she screamed." Okay, you're grounded in that its a female. But is she really in distress, or in euphoric joy. Let's not be sexist. We don't actually know what created the comment. Sure, the word "screamed" could indicate danger. But would that be so if this speaker was in a room of numerous loud voices and she didn't wish the caterer to place the food next to the exit door. Who's in danger? The speaker? Another person? Or is her pet dog raising a leg?

Many readers require to be immediately grounded, or they're flipping the story closed as a waste of their valuable time. And, who can blame them for desiring the security not to have to figure out the details of time and place. And, this knowledge can include both the physical as well as the emotional facts. Remember the cliché of: "It was a dreary and stormy night on the ............"

If you've read any of Robert Crais's best-selling novels, you'll begin with a straightforward description of characters and location, even if there's no immediate indication of conflict or tension. Obviously, that's what his readers expect and he delivers.

A descriptive on-board conversation of Sister Fidelma of Cashel sets the stage for Peter Tremayne in The Dove of Death to start the adventure with a death-defying jump into the sea and a dramatic rescue to avoid certain death.

2. Tension versus mood.

Yes, some novels depend on mood. Note above, a dark and storm night. However, it's easy to overdo the description of mood if relying on nature rather than human emotions. Readers, and I have no specific survey to quote, attach themselves easier to human emotions than the swaying of branches, a silvery moon, or the old chestnut of an approaching storm to equate to or suggest pending danger.

The trick for weather moods is to incorporate it into the personality, fears, or hopes of the witnessing character. Example 1: He shuddered at every strike of lightning; his father had been killed by a late August strike. Example 2: She felt calm. The wind did that. Example 3: Whenever George touched a wet rock, he thought of his pet turtle that slipped from his grip into the rapids and never surfaced.

While its sad, visual media has overpowered most written descriptions of natural phenomena. The descriptions are still important as seasoning, if not the main dinner course.

3.  Tension ploys.

Many authors employ short, staccato sentences or non-sentences to create tension. In the short term, it can work. The gunslinger flexed his fingers. His holster tied to his right leg. The six-shooter loaded. The crow cried. Dust settled. His eyes straight ahead. Unmoving. His fingers flexed again.

After two pages, aren't you ready to say, fire or die?

No comments:

Post a Comment