Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Greatest Manipulator on Earth. Psstt, it’s you.

I'm nose deep in revisions so this post is as much for me as it is for you.

There is a popular concept branded about in writer circles. And that is having tension on every page. In fact, Donald Maass talks about it in his most excellent book, Writing The Breakout Novel. He, and others, argue that one must have tension on every page. Tension pulls the reader along.

I shall make a confession here. Every time I read this, I’d nod my virtual head vigorously like a good little writer. Yes, yes, I see. Tension on every page. Makes sense to me.

Except it didn’t. I didn’t get it. How can there possibly be tension on every page? Doesn’t the reader need a rest at some point? I know I do. But then there is the very good argument that if a reader rests, she puts the book down. Can’t have that. But… well, I still wasn’t quite sold. Then it hit me. Perhaps I wasn't looking at this tension thing the right way. It wasn’t tension that kept me hooked as a reader. It was emotion. Emotion on every page is what gets me every time.

Let’s look at it this way. Why do we (as readers) pick up a novel and spend hours with it? For pleasure. Unless it’s homework, it’s for pleasure. And pleasure is emotion. We read to experience an emotional effect, be that joy, fear, sorrow, anxiety.

To piggyback on Jen’s awesome post, tension, those unanswered questions, move us along from one chapter to the next. But emotion is what brought us into the story, and it is what will keep us there. If I don’t give a fig for the character then I’m not going to care what happens to them. I won’t _need_ to have the answers to those questions.

Thus, it is your job as a writer to take us on an emotional ride. You want the reader to feel the highs, lows, and every emotion in between right along with the characters.

This is a hard thing to demonstrate with snips. Why? Because great emotion is about build up. The crest of every emotional scene has a seed in scenes two or three paces back.

Think of the standard roller-coaster ride. We walk up to the line, we see that great edifice, the towering height of it –and we’re actually going to go on that thing?- then the long line, the tension builds –by God, do you hear those riders screaming?- it winds along, there are glimpses of the cars shuddering past. Finally, you get into your seat, your heart races and you haven’t even moved! Up the slow, steep hill you go, all the while knowing what will come, but never quite sure if the experience will be what you expect or something altogether different. And then the top, teetering there, until whoooshh!! The moment of freefall!

Exciting isn’t it. And notice that most of it was the build, the anticipation of what’s to come.

That is a novel.

And you are the architect. You must design each turn, the way the line will go to use that glimpse of the ride to maximum effect, the speed in which the car will climb so that the thrill is at its zenith. In short, you must carefully craft each scene so that you (the writer) are emotionally manipulating us (the readers) at every instance. We must feel the emotions right along with the characters. Do that and we’ll care. Oh, how we’ll care!

But how do you know if you are properly manipulating your readers? One good clue is are you (the writer) feeling those emotions as well? You ought to. If you aren’t laughing, crying, flushing with heat, along with your characters then you know you have a problem.

Yet having emotion isn’t all of it. Emotional manipulation is about choices. What strings you chose to pull. Think of Hitchcock’s Psycho. When Janet Leigh gets in that shower, why not follow the killer’s POV instead? Why not show him getting dressed, pulling out his knife, creeping into the hotel? But Hitchcock follows the girl, her getting undressed, into the shower… Why? Because we all know that Hitch was a master manipulator and his choice is to suck us into the victim’s vulnerability. We are afraid for her, we have become way more invested in that scene than if we followed an insane killer. After all, what do we normal people have in common with that guy? Not nearly as much as we do with a tired traveler who just wants a good night's sleep. See? Choices. Choices that heighten our emotion to the greatest effect.

So let’s have a word on choice. Now this might seem like a wholly different tangent, but it is not. Emotion and choice are intimately connected.

Now, in regards to choice, here is the thing to remember: you are writing a story, not playing with dolls. Let’s repeat that. You are not playing with dolls. I think we can all remember playing with our dolls (be they Barbie or GI Joe). They’d go on lots of adventures, do this and that, all great fun. For us. Yet to the outsider, not so much.

This merits telling because I think even the most seasoned writer can be found guilty of playing with dolls now and then. It’s an easy trap to fall into. We love our characters. We want to play with them. Heck, right now I can take my characters –say Miri and Archer (because deep down, they are two hams)- and have them do a duet to Ebony and Ivory on the pinafore. I’d have great fun doing it; you might even have fun reading it. But what purpose does it have to the story? None.

Hence we must focus. Sorry, guys, while I’d love to see you both play, you can’t, we’ve got a job to do.

So I charge to you, the writer. Remember these two biggies of craft when sitting down to that computer, or taking pen to hand. Choice and Emotion in every scene, every step of the way. This might seem like overkill, but I promise you, it will eventually flow in a more organic way the more you learn craft.

That is all. Er, are you still awake? We’ve coffee in the lounge, now get to it. Go write that awesome story. :)


  1. Brilliant post Kristen! I kept finding myself nodding at every point, especially the point that we're not playing with dolls -so true that it's fun for the player and definitely utterly boring for an outsider. I hope I hope I hope that this stuff sticks in my head as I keep writing...

  2. Great post, Kristen! And I totally agree with everything you said. (g)

    The tension on every page is a bit of a misnomer, I think. Or at least, I think a lot of writers misinterpret what he's trying to convey. Tension isn't always the big badass bounty hunter type being tracked by some whack job serial killer or whatever. That IS tension, yes, but it's pretty overt. "Tension" can be as simple as attraction between two characters...or the converse, two characters that are repellant to each other. It can be as simple as two characters having different objectives during a conversation/argument... or as simple as wanting to know the answer to some burning question.

    NOT everything needs to be a high tension shoot out or murder scene. I honestly think this is why a lot of people think there needs to be a dead body in chapter one. (g)

    I think it all leads into your second point. Our characters are NOT dolls. Having them play house is not all that exciting, imho. That's why I always have a serious problem when people have their characters doing things like dancing around singing a duet... I mean, I don't GET it. LOL. I'll never be in the moment. Oh, I'm sure the author thinks it's great fun...but me? I'm always thinking to myself...GET ON WITH THE STORY.

    I find the great way to get out that particular battle is to write stuff for exercises on the forum. I swear, I'm practically writing fanfic of my own work over there...great fun, but most times stuff I would never use. Not always, though. So I wouldn't necessarily argue against writing these kinds of scenes...but I would STRONGLY urge people to think twice about using them in their books. If it doesn't move the plot along, axe 'em. :) And hurts it hurts to cut these things, but ya gotta.


  3. Thanks, Deniz! :) I keep hoping _I'll_ remember my own advice as well. It's hard to keep on track!

  4. Jen -- Wait, you DON'T want to read about Miri and Archer singing a'la Michael and Paul?? But, but it's brilliant!! (bg)

    The tension thing -- yeah, that is what I was trying (perhaps not to well) to explain. I was obviously thinking about tension in the wrong way. It became much easier for _me_ to understand when I thought about tension in terms of emotion.

    I like to think of Tension (as in real obstacles the character faces) in terms of plot/choice/circumstance, and tension (the little things) in terms of emotion. As in the wants/needs of the character. Heh, this might not make any sense to anyone else but me. :)

  5. Kristen,

    Great post! You're so right - if the reader doesn't care about the characters emotionally, then s/he won't keep reading no matter how dramatic the story is. Case in point: the first Anita Blake book (by Laurell K. Hamilton). I tried reading it. Great "tension" in action on every page, she's been kidnapped by the bad guys, they take her into some dungeon to go meet the king vampire or whatever he she going to make it through the meeting alive?

    I don't know what happened to her. That's where I stopped reading. I didn't like her enough to keep reading, I didn't care whether she died or not. So yes...emotional involvement in the characters is VERY important!

  6. Excellent post. This really resonated with me -

    "Yet having emotion isn’t all of it. Emotional manipulation is about choices. What strings you chose to pull."

    So true. You've got me thinking about a ton of stuff for my own WIP with this post - brilliant!