I have a thick spiral notebook stuffed with notes I took from books on writing. Needing a topic for this week’s discussion, I opened the notebook randomly and I found these four snippets from The Writer’s Handbook.
1. If violence erupts in fiction, it should be the outcome of tension, it should not come first, nor should it be accidental. If someone finally kills someone else, it is simply the climax of a rhythmic building of tension that is long enough to be convincing but is short enough to be interesting.
2. Tension created for its own sake is cheap. The tension is part of your technique, but technique is only a means to an end; it is never the end itself.
3. The dictum for beginning fiction writers: multiply by two. Start the story with two people on the scene or bring in a second character before more than five sentences have elapsed.
4. Write dramatic scenes between two characters, and have some tension between these characters.
Characters react, cope with life and each other, hunger and fear, love and rage and cower. All of that adds to the tension, and tension keeps readers turning pages.
So, let’s talk about tension and characters. How do you add tension to a scene with only a single character? How do you keep the tension sparking when you have more than two characters? Since tension is strongest between two characters, how do you ensure that you have two characters per scene? (One author recommends that if you have more than two at a dinner table, have the others go to the restroom, wander off to visit friends, leave to make phone calls, anything to get the two combating characters alone together.) How do you make sure that the two combative characters remain together? What keeps one from walking away? If the tension escalates into violence, how do you make sure it is a natural outcome from the tension?