While I now want to make a short film of this 🙂 the title actually refers to the idiom ‘jumping the shark’ as I return to looking at common advice for writers with..
This one actually reminds me of conflict, in that I don’t disagree with it per se but I find its interpretation and application is often problematic.
Editor Harrison Demchick identifies lack of tension as something many ‘exceptionally talented writers …stumble over’. Which, I have to admit, really surprises me. Certainly as someone more used to seeing published works, danger seems to lurk around every corner, the risks ever escalating. As a writer I also find myself guilty of over reaching, not just jumping the shark but poking it with a shiny stick while doing a nah-nah-na-na-nah dance…
In the seven immutable rules of story Lisa Cron actually names this as a must-do, stating that anything which can go wrong must go wrong.
She further clarifies by stating,
….This is what the reader comes for – to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case..
But one does not necessarily lead to another. If anything which can go wrong does, it can push your story beyond the realms of believability. Often in order to muck things up you’ll have to rely on luck, fate or other divine and unquantifiable forces, something which Pixar actually state as acceptable for getting your character into trouble but a complete no-no for getting them out of it. Perhaps once in a while I’d agree but..
When the previously happily purring car won’t start at all just as the monster starts chasing her, after she’s already dropped her keys down the drain, twisted her ankle on the kerb, managed to park in the only unlit street, suddenly can’t get reception on her phone… Rolling your eyes yet?
Pushing beyond believability is a sure way to push your reader right out of the story.
Demchick identifies tension as danger, the more that is at stake the greater the tension and the more engaging the story; a tight rope walker a foot of the ground has none of the tension of a tight rope walker 100 feet of the ground. The greatest stake is always life. But when did you last read a book where you genuinely feared the character would lose their life? In the first person narrated Hunger Games? In the latest Jack Reacher instalment? We know Mr Reacher like Mr. Bond will be sipping on something come the last page, so where is the tension?
I dislike infallible characters as much as he does. Failure is part of life, it teaches us, but if you throw everything at your character it can become a measure not of failure but of their superhuman ability to survive. And for some books and heroes it would seem that this is a defining part of their appeal. Is it perhaps not so much how much, but what is at stake that matters?
Much like conflict real tension is often found in the smaller seemingly insignificant details. The true heart of a story is internal, an exploration of your character’s demons, desires and limitations. Knowing your character’s inner journey (yip, I hate that word too, but it does the job..) can help you know which obstacles to focus on. You can throw bombs at your Superman and let them bounce off his shiny suit, but watch him stumble and fall as Lois grinds him under her stiletto simply by mispronouncing his name…
Tailor your tension to your protagonist, exploit the gap between who they are and who they aspire or need to be. Superman seems invulnerable, already more than any man can hope to be, yet he has another side. Allowing him to shine, unbothered by any obstacle he cannot toast with a lazy blink of heat vision, adored by all, can actually work to enhance the frustrations of the bumbling, overlooked Clark. His need to conceal his dual identity and to be accepted as a man as well as a superman, to be loved without the suit, is heightened by the contrast.
We can’t always MacGyver our way out of a situation, so before you put your mc in death defying situation number 2050, ask yourself if that is really adding to the tension, or just one more shark on your hop scotch board. And has about as much flow.
Sometimes you need to let them soar, with the winds of fate at their backs. The higher they go, the further they fall.. and the greater the tension. Especially if your readers are expecting it. Hitchcock talked of using expectations to build suspense, but this is cumulative effect, one requiring time and restraint on the part of the writer. Let one pivotal threat run like a festering undercurrent beneath the surface rather than plotting a series of superficial obstacles (and again contrast works well here..) The example Hitchcock gave – the reader witnesses a bomb being planted in a busy café – the happier and more oblivious the patrons, the longer the anticipation, the more we invest in their stories and hope that someone will figure it out in time…
Predictability is the antithesis of drama. Following tried and tested formulas, regardless of whether they meet someone’s idea of tension, won’t help when the reader already knows what will happen. Playing with their expectations keeps them on their toes. The willingness to kill of a main character is often treated as a great dramatic tool, but by the mid-way point of Torchwood my friends and I were taking bets on who would be killed off next. It became stale and it made me unwilling to invest in the characters. The key is to use sparingly, just enough to stop your reader from getting too comfortable, but not so much they never settle into your world.
Because the real key to tension lies not in what is at stake for the character, but what is at stake for the reader. You have to make them invest in your story, so that they care what happens. If they don’t, you could boil the oceans and burn out the sun and they’ll just be wondering who got kicked off I’m A Celebrity…