Friday, April 9, 2021

Power Positions--How to Increase the Tension in Characters and Locations

"Who's on first?"

We're not talking baseball. We're asking: Who is the power person in a particular scene? Who is the character that holds the control over present and future outcomes? Who will most easily score the home run?

Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension in my fiction and memoir more skillfully.

To create tension, two or more elements of power combine, and one wins out. Just like people try to exert control over their lives every day. so must characters on the page. Story is about that give and take, that gain and loss of control over oneself and one's circumstances.

"Power" in literature means the ability to evoke change in the status quo. The character that achieves this, drives the story forward. Characters who are powerless do not.

I recently read a novel that featured three main characters, different women who loved the same man. The first woman was powerless; she became an alcoholic and couldn't take care of her children for most of the novel. The second was more powerful; she was a journalist with money and smarts. The third started out very powerless, living with a serious disability, but she figured out her life and ended up better off than any of the others.

Guess who was the most interesting character to me, the reader? The one who gradually increased her control over her life. Her power.

Many writers don't like this idea. They want their characters to stay safe, not risk. Good remain good; the nasty, fall. But safe is boring. The power never shifts, and that kind of predictability causes a tension stall out.

Power positions work with characters internally--how they feel about their own ability to change their worlds. It also operates between characters. Who controls whom? Who fights whom for what, to paraphrase screenwriting guru John Truby. If a character isn't willing to fight to gain more control over his or her life, if they stay safe within the known boundaries of their power or lack of it, the tension drops.

So it pays to look at the power balance in your scenes. Ideally, the power balance within and without should shift from beginning to end--as characters realize things, make decisions, grow. As they fight for what they want.

Here's another cool rule: Not much tension arises when I pair a high-power player with someone completely not in power. There's no mystery as to who will win. Each stays safe within their known world, where the rules are familiar. The weaker person is always dominated. Ho hum.

Interest skyrockets when the weaker person suddenly begins to change, get more strength, find more clues, work with more tools--as that third character in the novel I just finished reading. The outcome is unexpected, I got more engaged.

MG and YA stories are super examples of this, maybe because their plots are simpler or the desires of young narrators are more straightforward. I think of Katniss in The Hunger Games or Harry Potter. Weak to start, gathering strength as we go, the power shifts and they become the heroes by the end, affecting everyone. This makes for an exciting story.

Power elements aren't only played out through characters. A hostile setting, or location, in your story can be almost a character in itself and shift the power balance. Think rivers that flood, tornadoes that sweep through a town, fires. Even a sinister object (a jackknife) in an otherwise normal location (rest-area restroom) brings an element of power that will affect the story.

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. Ask who the power person is in the scene, and change it up. Ask what the power location is, and have it act upon the characters.

This is called revising up. It may not be possible in early drafts but it's definitely necessary in later ones.

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, you might:

1. Introduce a third person who presents a challenge (three often is a stronger number in scenes than two)

2. Raise the narrator to a level of more power--i.e., meeting a challenge that they have been avoiding

3. Focus the camera on a challenging part of the setting, placing the power in the location

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.

Here's an exercise I often teach in my characters workshop. It's unexpectedly potent, so try it this week, if you want.

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. Make another list of locations--rank them according to their ability to enact change.

4. Pick a scene or chapter that is not tense enough. Ask yourself if you've followed the power rules above. What can you add, change, or move to increase the power elements and raise the tension?

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