Tension=Action?

Authors like food.

To get food, authors must have money.

To get money, authors have to sell books.

To sell books, authors have to engage the reader, and an engaged reader is a reader who wishes to turn the page.

So, if you want food, your readers need to turn the page.  Which raises the question: “how do you make readers turn the page?”

Personally, I recommend looming over their shoulder and staring until they nervously read on.  But someone else (someone with less time on their hands to dedicate to daily looming) might say that tension helps turn pages.  Certainly not as exciting as good old fashioned exhortation, but somewhat effective nonetheless.

There is a pitfall however, dear writer friends, in that tension can typically and most easily manifest as action.  There’s nothing that necessitates page-turnation–yep, that’s a thing–like an RPG (not the nerdy kind) racing toward the protagonist’s helicopter.  Cliffhanger ain’t called CLIFF-hanger for nothing.  It is worth noting that continual action isn’t always a bad thing, but it can get monotonous, even tedious, and most importantly, it’s pretty shallow, because it deals with character’s physical abilities or their cunning rather than their emotional depth.  So, how can you improve your tension writing, then, without just writing action?

My best advice: identify your “tension meter.”

For me, it’s squirming.  Squirming is evidence of tension.  Some of the relationship scenes in Friends made me squirm so hard I had to leave the room.  The important part of this procedure is to be able to rewind and isolate the actual things that make you squirm from people who are masters at tension.

Once you’ve found your tension meter and have identified instance of tension in someone else’s work, try to replicate it, and the squirmy feeling with your own work.  After all, if it doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, then how can you expect your readers to feel uncomfortable.

Anyone who read Harry Potter can speak to this.  Harry makes some pretty dumb decisions, decisions that make us, the readers, squirm.  You can yell at Harry all you want, but ultimately he’s still going to charge fool-heartedly into the Ministry of Magic and get *spoiler* killed for no friggen reason, sheesh.  It is equally important to note that in this instance, the squirm did not happen once the trap had been sprung, but when Harry decided upon his course.  The action is just action, but the lead-up–the conflicted emotional stuff–is where the tension (and page-turning impetus) lies.

If your writing doesn’t make you squirm in the best of ways, then you’re doing something wrong.

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2 Thoughts to “Tension=Action?”

  1. Now that’s one way to put it. Make them squirm.

    1. In the best of ways, of course 😉

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