I was in the shower this morning, when I spotted something from the corner of my eye. There was a spider, hiding where the ceiling meets the two tiled walls of my bathroom. It had a powdery grey body and spindly, overlong legs. It was giving me a steady wave with two of its legs – that was what had caught my attention. It seemed to be conducting an invisible orchestra.
I do not like spiders, especially when bare-skinned and soaking wet. The pulse under my all-too exposed neck quickened. I watched its orchestral movements. I knew it planned to move.
I was holding my breath, unable to tear my eyes away, as it launched out from its home base. I took a step back. It descended on an invisible strand, agile as a gymnast. My naked skin squirmed as it neared my shoulder.
I was behaving like a girl, I told myself. Then I remembered. I was a girl. I muffled a shriek and half lost my balance in my rush to get out of the bath, knocking my shin in the process. The spider landed on the bath edge. Shower water rained down and it curled in on itself. For a moment, my revulsion turned to guilt; I had killed it. I looked around for something to scoop it into and when I turned back, it was gone – in seconds it had scrabbled up its cord and was eyeing me from the ceiling.
I’d been genuinely frightened and repulsed. Even though I know spiders are harmless and useful, I felt I had faced a monster. But, as soon as it showed vulnerability, I’d pitied it.
The most useful techniques any writer can stuff under their belt is the ability to show a build-up of emotion, whether that is pity, or terror or any other kind. Fiction, regardless of whether this is a short story or writing the length of Moby-Dick (whale or book), needs pulse beats of tension to arrest and engage the reader, and yet they’re not alway easy to create. Storing away the memories of emotional crises, even such minor ones as my drama in the shower, can be usefully used on the page.
Writing students do sometimes get confused about building tension, confusing it with conflict. Although these two aspects of writing both fiction and drama have links, and can be present at the same time, they are not the same.
Conflict is the clash between a character’s aim or desire and whatever is standing in its way. The types of conflict used in fiction are well known by writers. It’s the character versus other humans, monsters, aliens, nature, God, technology fate or the supernatural – all external conflicts which could confront your character and attempt to stop them achieving their goal. Most usefully, it can be the character versus themselves – internal conflict between the main character and their fear failing to achieving their ultimate goal. My moment of conflict in the bathroom was all about a phobia. If it had been, say, a moth, I wouldn’t have reacted at all.
Tension in fiction evokes emotion in the reader, connecting them more tightly to the story you are spinning out. It is certainly a product of conflict, but tension doesn’t naturally arise out of conflict – you have to make it happen. If you have created a conflict in your character’s life without engaging any sort of stress or pressure, then the conflict will fail to engage the reader. Because we often think of conflict as something huge and noisy…something involving danger, threats and the need for flight, we might not realise that tension is all about the little things, too. The personal jab by a colleague that knots the stomach. The horror of losing car keys. The spider in the corner of the shower.
For tension to enter your writing, you need to transform conflict situations into a tense read. Start with your character, who needs to feel alive on the page. If the characters are convincing, the reader will relate to them and care what happens, even if it’s only a lost car key when they’re already late. If you’ve created conflict, but you have not convinced your reader to care about the character that’s facing it, there won’t be tension, even with all the danger, all the running away, in the fictional world.
When conflict occurs, the character’s reaction is paramount, becoming an opportunity to develop your character and show what sort of person they are under pressure. To allow the reader needs to feel the same reaction as that character, you must describe what is happening physically, with appropriate intensity.
In the shower, I felt my pulse rise. I hardly realised I was holding my breath. I had real difficulty suppressing a scream. I leapt from the bath, banging my shin. All these emotional reactions are physical.
The reader also needs to see what the character is seeing. To allow that to happen, I started my little story by being unaware, building tension as a sudden realisation arrived. I used words to describe the beast that I hoped would cause a similar emotion in my reader. Powdery grey…overlong legs…conducting an invisible orchestra. The more there is to describe, the longer you should take, building tightness by holding off the moment of action or release.
It works well if you can add vulnerability to the character’s position. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the story is focused on a fisherman who struggles to make a great catch. He’s not young, or powerful any more. And the boat isn’t strong, either. But he’s determined and we understand that and turn the pages with the same intensity that Santiago uses when gripping his rod and line. In my drama in the shower, I’m naked, wet, and covered in soap. If the spider had been in the corner of the living room, and I’d had a spider trap to hand, there would have been no conflict, no tension, no story at all.
Finally, tense fiction should be pared down to the essentials, with every word in every sentence having a distinct purpose, every sentence in every paragraph being necessary to the whole, and every scene contributing to the story line. I edited the first part of this blog heavily, cutting out everything I didn’t need and shortening some sentences to the bare minimum.
Use your writing diary to make notes about your own tense moments. Even if they are quite small, writing about them will show you how you can write with pace and dramatic energy. And when you need some tension in your writing, you can draw on your own experiences however you like.