The Writing Secret that Will Vitalize Your Work (And Help You Get Published)

And the secret is…. Silencio_silence_dedo_904581_l


Also known as tension.

Adding lots and lots of it (probably far more than you imagined you could or should) is what will make your fiction and non-fiction, pop, sizzle, and sell.  It is also what makes a book or a story a page-turner.  (Like the novel, The Improper Life of Bezelia Grove, that I read on the plane on my journey home from Nashville on Monday. Couldn't put that baby down, and completed it before the plane touched down in Portland.)

I know that all writers know this.  But do we know know it, and fully embrace it?  Or do we get lazy and think that enough conflict is enough?

I'm thinking once again about the importance of conflict in writing because of a fabulous lecture I heard last weekend at the Writer's Loft, the certificate writing program I teach at in Nashville.

The lecture was given by my colleague and friend, Linda Busby Parker, and in it she talked about tension in fiction, using short stories to illustrate her points.  Linda referred to three different kinds of tension:

  • Narrative Tension.  This is tension in the story.
  • Emotional Tension.  This would be tension in character
  • Micro Tension.  The tension in every scene.

Doesn't matter if you are writing fiction, a memoir, an article, or a book to promote your business–every kind of writing under the sun can benefit from a heaping dollop of additional tension.  But how to do it?

One of the books that Linda mentioned is the latest by literary agent and author Donald Maass, called The Fire in Fiction.  Maass avows that the key is in the use of micro-tension, saying that with its use, you can fire up dialogue, a passage of description, or narrative–all of which are traditional low-tension traps.

So here's the key to adding in more micro-tension: introduce interior or exterior conflict experienced by the protagonist.  And a kick-ass way to do this is to apply the concept of opposing forces.   Opposing forces can be set up between characters, between action, in narrative summary, and even description.  In her lecture, Linda mentioned hearing this concept expressed by a speaker at a writer's conference in Florida a few years ago.  This writer likened the concept of opposing forces to the structural tension that keeps a suspension bridge aloft.  And this same writer said that once she started applying opposing forces to her stories, they all sold.

So, opposing forces, micro-tension, conflict.  How do you utilize it in your stories and books?  What are some tricks you've used for getting more of it into your work?

*This is the first in a series of posts on things that impressed me at the Writer's Loft.  We had a great orientation weekend, with lots of fabu new students.  Really fun and inspiring.  I'll write more about it tomorrow.

**One way to impose conflict on your work is to be able to envision it properly in the first place.  Sign up for my free Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With A Vision Board to help you do just that.  The form is to the right of this post.


Photo by bialduda.

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7 Responses to The Writing Secret that Will Vitalize Your Work (And Help You Get Published)

  1. Patrick Ross 09/22/2011 at 13:27 #

    You nailed it with this one, Charlotte. I’m friends with self-described “genre” writers and “literary” writers (although I can go on and on about the artificial distinctions between those two groups). The better “literary” writers know what others writing in that space don’t — conflict is critical everywhere. You can write an entire book without a single shootout, car chase, or shouting match and have it drip with conflict and tension. (I’ve only heard a lecture on this book, I haven’t read it, but the book “The Loser” by Thomas Bernhard apparently takes place almost entirely as the narrator has just entered the foyer of a woman’s house, he tells it through reflection and memory, but it’s filled with tales of him and two rivals and includes mayhem and death.)

  2. Zan Marie 09/22/2011 at 13:54 #

    Tension is the glue that holds plot together and makes a good read. You nailed this one, Charlotte.

  3. Charlotte Dixon 09/22/2011 at 17:27 #

    Any credit for a good post goes to my dear friend Linda, who inspired me with her lecture in the first place.

    Patrick, love the thoughts on literary and genre writing–and I’ve got to get me a copy of “The Loser.” Sounds amazing and well worth reading for technique.

    Zan Marie, hi! Great idea to think of tension as the glue that holds it all together!

  4. Jessica Baverstock 09/22/2011 at 19:28 #

    In Blake Snyder’s book ‘Save the Cat’ (which is about screenwriting, I know, but the principles apply to good storytelling in general) he talks about writing each scene on a card and putting it up on a board where you can see the progression of your story.

    Each card should have a +/- which indicates the emotional change in the scene and a >< which is the conflict in each scene. He says ‘don’t start a scene unless you have figured out who your players are and what they want.’ It’s hard to do, and feels a bit tedious when you first do it, but it certainly makes a difference!

  5. Charlotte Dixon 09/23/2011 at 13:50 #

    Oh Jessica, thank you for reminding me, I have that book in the pile next to my bed and I’ve not yet read it. Sounds like a helpful process. And I totally agree that books on screenwriting apply to other writing, I often tell novelists and non-fiction writers to read them. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Jenny 09/29/2011 at 05:54 #

    Charlotte, you’re a wonder! I’m on my way to buy that book by Mr. Maass.

    Meanwhile, thank you so much for another marvelously helpful article.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 09/29/2011 at 06:11 #

    Thank you Jenny, I like being called a wonder! But before I get too puffed up, its really all because my colleague Linda gave such a great lecture.

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