Friday, May 10, 2013

Oh, No! Then What Happened?

By Matt Sinclair

The other day, I saw a question from a writer who was asking if it was ok if the tension in his story wasn’t all that intense. I’ve not read his story, so I don’t know if 95 percent of it is an action-packed adventure and he was concerned about that remaining 5 percent. I don’t know if it’s a cerebral thriller that traps readers in mental zigzags of seemingly contradictory paths that turn out to make perfect sense in the end. I don’t know if it’s a tale about a baby kangaroo whose best friend got in trouble and went to bed without any supper.

But one thing I’m fairly certain about: if a reader gets bored, no matter how well you write, you’re at risk of losing a reader. At a certain level, writing is a symbiotic relationship with readers. A writer needs a reader. Without a reader, the writer gets stale and dies, unknown and unremembered. Not forgotten, mind you, because no one ever knew about me…er, the writer… in the first place. The relationship goes both ways: a reader needs a writer. Sure, a voracious reader can probably be sustained by dry technical manuals and watching rabbits eat the grass in the back yard -- at least for a little while -- but most readers need meatier stuff.

We writers sometimes play hard to get. We talk about how we write for ourselves and don’t care if our books sell -- if we ever write a complete book much less get it published. But secretly we all want to have some recognition that our perspective is at least moderately interesting. It’s not about the art of writing, it’s about communication, having a voice, being acknowledged for existing.

Tension in a story isn’t about violence or death, it’s about characters having a skin in the game. If your main character walks away from the central conflict of the story and never returns, then we’re following the wrong character. “But,” you argue, “the central conflict is what’s going on in that character’s mind.” Maybe so. Show me. But, God forbid, don’t bore me.

You see, I only have so many minutes in the day to read, and right now, I’ve got a four-year-old who wants one more rendition of the trouble that ensued when Elmo was delivering a stinkweed plant to Oscar. A barber was caught off guard by Elmo’s sneeze and buzzed a reverse Mohawk along a customer’s scalp. His sneezing caused a monster-built brick wall to collapse; so did the cans Bert was stacking in the store where he works. I think there’s an untold story about circus elephants running amok in avenues near Sesame Street.

Tension. We learn its value at an early age. We remember it and learn from it. Use it copiously.

That reminds me, did you know that only a couple blocks from Mr. Hooper’s store, there’s a blue-skinned guy in a trench coat selling counterfeit ‘O’s?...

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which published The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, which is available via Amazon and Smashwords. Earlier in 2012, EBP published its initial anthology, Spring Fevers, which also is available through Smashwords, and Amazon. Both anthologies include stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette; R.C. Lewis and Jean Oram also have stories in The Fall. Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge will be published in the summer of 2013. Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68 


JeffO said...

Spot on, Matt. I beta read for someone who wrote well and had a strong story, but continually backed away from things that ratcheted up the tension in his manuscript. It was a frustrating experience.

Liza said...

Great post. I am still finding, as a learning writer, it's hard to write the tension in. My characters are so real to me, I worry for them. Usually I have to gear up to write a tough scene. The first time I killed someone off, it took me two weeks to garner the strength to do it. Now it only takes me a day or two off and a few deep breaths to do the hard stuff.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jeff and Liza. I'll admit, it's easy -- especially for beginning writers -- to want to make things easy for the characters, but that ultimately is the last thing you should ever do for them. Heck, in one of my stalled novels, I have a prominent character who was a talented enough helicopter to not die when he was forced to a bumpy landing in Antarctica, but he's still stuck on the ice in Antarctica. And I haven't been back since. That must be cold.

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