Friday, October 25, 2013

Who's on First? Power in Characters and Power in Locations--How Good Pairings Raise Tension in Your Novel or Memoir

A writing rule I wish I knew when I started out:  to create tension in your scenes, two or more elements of power must be combined.  "Power" in literature means the ability to evoke change in the status quo.  If you play it safe, you'll keep this from happening with your characters or locations.   

Your writing will lack tension to drive forward, to become a page-turner, to irrevocably engage a reader's interest.

The writing rule about power is an antidote to the unconscious desire to play it safe--which many writers struggle with.  This rule reminds you to make sure each scene has at least two power elements.  Three is even better.  You want that itchy friction that keeps a reader wondering what's going to happen.   

Power Elements in Fiction and Memoir

"Who's on first?"  You know that saying?  Although it applies to baseball, I use it in my writing too.  Who is the power person in this scene, the one who will most easily get the home run?  Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension.   

Not much tension comes when I pair a power player with someone not in power.  There's no mystery as to who will win.  The weaker person is always dominated.  Ho hum.  But what if the weaker person suddenly begins to change, get more strength, find more clues, work with more tools?  The outcome is unexpected, the writing gets more interesting.  Make sense?

Power elements can be two characters (real or fictional) or even something hostile in a setting, or location, in your story.  Setting is nearly a character in most good writing--it becomes memorable to the reader and can affect the plot.   

Think rivers that flood, tornadoes, fires, a sinister element (jackknife) in an otherwise normal location (rest-area restroom). 

Playing It Safe 

Why do we unconsciously or consciously create low-tension scenes?  Why do we instinctively avoid placing power with power?  Why do we keep our characters at victim-level (powerless) for so long or nestle them into familiar, comfortable locations?  Lots of reasons.  We're nice people, and that tendency trickles into our writing.  We want to write "funny" rather than intense.  We are overwhelmed with conflict in our real lives, and the last thing we need is tension in our writing.

But readers long for conflict.  It gets our pulses racing and surprises us.  It gets writing unstuck.  Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, once said in an interview that if he notices his characters are in the same room for more than a page, he gets them out of there.  I wrote that down.  The location that's not generating conflict is not a power location.      

When we feel stuck and see that nothing's moving forward very well, it's likely we're neglecting the power rule.   

What about early drafts?  My first draft "islands" (scene fragments) are for getting to know my players and my locations.  I may use less tension because it gives me freedom to explore without personal anxiety.  But "first draft" means just that--there's more to come.    

I know I'll revise up when tackling the chapters again. Revising up means raising the stakes.  Adding those essential power elements, bringing on the conflict.    

How to Revise Up for More Tension 

Let's say you write a first-draft scene where a character (or real person--if you're writing memoir) sits drinking coffee in her grandmother's kitchen.  The talk might have undercurrents, subtext, but nothing is overt.  No fights, no arguments, no stomping out of the room.  Nothing yet to raise the stakes.   

When revising up, the writer might:

1.  Introduce a third person who presents a challenge

2.  Raise the narrator to a level of more power--i.e., meeting the challenge

3.  Focus the camera on a challenging part of the setting

An example:  One of my students wrote a scene for her memoir.  It took place the day after her father died unexpectedly.  The household was in terrible grief.  She and her aunt were having breakfast in the kitchen.   

This writer's first draft was sluggish.  She told of deep misery inside each of them, long silences and sighs.  To her, it was full of tension.  To a reader, it was fairly low key.  After discouraging feedback that proved this, the writer came to me.  She wanted to raise the stakes, make the tension more obvious.   

I asked her to look at her descriptions, both of the location and the two people.  Was there a power element, a challenge, that she'd been ignoring or downplaying?

She found two.  Her aunt's sweater was buttoned wrong--her aunt was always a snappy dresser.  The writer had not included the narrator's reaction to this.  Once highlighted, it showed the deep confusion in the aunt's heart about her brother's sudden death.  Also, a broken glass in the sink stayed there all morning--no one cleaned it up.  When she expanded these two power elements (both were tense to her, challenging the norm), the scene's tension exploded.     

This Week's Writing Exercise

1.  Make a list of all the main players in your current manuscript.   

2.  Rank them in order of power--power means they cause change in the story, in a big or small way.

3.  Do the same with locations--list them according to their ability to enact change.

4.  Pick a scene or chapter that is not tense enough.  Ask yourself if you've placed power with power (a challenging person with another equally challenging person or a hostile location).  Remember that power can be just something out of place, something jarring, something that speaks of change and cannot be ignored.  If you can, raise the stakes. 

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