Putting the Tense in Narrative Tension
by Bill Johnson
When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. (Interesting to note, this is also the very essence of conflict in a story, which is what narrative tension is often called.)
When acting to gain something increases a character’s pain – because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles – a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.
And if done right, the reader experiences it, too.
In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character that can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction (consequences of their decision, which drives plot, which ties back to character… thus demonstrating the full-circle linkage between all the key elements in a story), but there’s also a price to pay for taking action.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is a great example of narrative tension in play. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family. To not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what is important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.
Notice how these consequences manifest within both an inner realm and the outer reality of his life. Notice it carefully, because that’s what makes a character compelling and someone the reader can relate to. Which is always a wonderful thing.
Romeo is a great character because he won’t allow even death to block him from being with Juliet. As readers, we may not have ever felt that depth of love, but if we have a pulse, we’d like to. Romeo delivers a vicarious emotional experience to the reader, and thus he’s an immortal character in literature.
A novel (or memoir) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, there’s an accumulation of details, but there’s no tension around to drive toward an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there’s no tension or drama generated around their actions.
If you’re looking for examples of this, that’s tough, because these stories don’t get published.
Merely suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write about this tension in a way that it is transferred from a story’s characters to a story’s audience.
While a great plot can help hook an audience on finding out what will happen next, when an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller.
The greater the tension, the more compelling the novel.
Or put another, more experiential way… the greater that ultimate release of narrative tension, the more satisfying the story is to readers.
When I’ve worked with or talked with agents, a lack of narrative tension is their number one reason for rejecting novels. Sometimes they call it by other names – shallow characters, weak story, etc. – but it always boils down to narrative tension.
If you can create a novel with a main character in a deep state of narrative tension, you’re on your way to creating a compelling story. If you fail, you’re on your way to creating a dramatically inert account of someone’s life. And, a rejection slip in your inbox.
For some new or struggling writers, learning the difference between these two paths often requires a conscious effort to understand the craft of storytelling. It means opening a book and perceiving how that author generates narrative tension from the opening lines.
That’s the challenge. If it were easy, we’d all be publishing and going on book tours. But it is a skill that, when understood and put into play in your stories, can take you to the next level. And just maybe, that book tour.
It can be a difficult path, but it has the ultimate reward of turning ordinary writing into compelling, worthwhile and publishable storytelling.
Bill Johnson is a writing instructor, mentor and coach, as well as a produced playwright, published essayist and has been a manuscript reader for literary agents. His website and more about his book, A Story is a Promise , can be found at www.storyispromise.com.
You can order it from Amazon.com HERE.
He is also an active leader of the Willamette Writers, about which you can learn more HERE.
Next up — a guest post by New Times Bestselling thriller writer Chelsea Cain.