Creative Tension in the Writing Life

Once I had a writing friend who set her computer screensaver to show the words, “Why aren’t you writing?”

And, indeed, that is the question, isn’t it? It is the question at the heartbeat of a writer’s days. Why aren’t you writing? Why are you watching TV when you could be writing? Why are you mopping the kitchen floor when you could be writing? Why are you playing Spider Solitaire when you could be writing?

That question strikes to the heart of the creative tension that drives a writer. When we’re not writing, we feel we should be. It’s a tension that I’m not sure non-writers (or non-creatives, because I’m sure artists of all stripes feel this way, too) get.

Sometimes I imagine how wonderful it might be just to go through life as a normal person. A person who isn’t constantly thinking and worrying about writing. A person who doesn’t wake up first thing in the morning and start planning when she’ll be able to write. A person who doesn’t start thinking about when he will write tomorrow as soon as his head hits the pillow. To not have this constant pull to create something.

But, truthfully, I’d hate it. Because I don’t honestly know how non-creative people get through. Do you? My writing is my constant companion, the page that receives all my worries and joys and brilliant ideas (along with the duds). It’s where I process life, where I figure things out–and this goes for fiction, non-fiction, and journaling. And I don’t know what I’d do without it.

So if the constant tension to create is the payment for the writing life, I’ll take it. How about you?

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Creating Characters: Compassion and Conflict

I was quite taken with this post from Sandra Pawula on compassion when I read it last weekend. (I'm actually quite often taken with admiration for Sandra's posts.  If you haven't discovered her blog, go read it now.) Paper-pink-texture-64137-l

In the post, Sandra writes about how compassion is linked to boundless, deep love and then, and this is what really blew me away,  she defines love. "This is one truth I have come to know with certainty: When you love completely from the depth of your heart, your wish for another person’s happiness becomes greater than your own perceived needs, wants, and desires."

So, because anything I read or think about eventually gets connected to my writing, I started to think about how we authors feel deep compassion for our characters.  We fall in love with them, and want the best for them.  We want them to be happy.

But, then we have the other C word.  You know what I'm going to say: conflict.

The basis of all story is conflict (or tension, if you prefer).  In order to create a story, be it short story, memoir, or novel, there must be conflict.  And lots of it.  The more the better.

But we love our characters!  How can we show them the compassion they deserve (and in my mind, need if we're going to write them) and still create the conflict the story requires?

There's actually conflict in that there dilemma, which is a bit of a starting point.  And, I think for me it helps to remind myself that conflict is the crucible through which we deepen ourselves, our lives, and our capacity to love.  And if it's true for humans, it's true for the human characters about which we write.

In order to write multi-dimensional characters (and I just finished a novel with one-dimensional characters that ultimately disappointed me) we, their creators, must approach them with equal thought given to both conflict and compassion.

As always, I'm feeling my way through this topic as I write it, and the really juicy development of it will happen in the comments.  So, please chime in!  Do you feel compassion for your characters?  How do you bring yourself to torture them with conflict?

Photo by MeHere.

Conflict in Minor Characters

Okay y'all, this is going to be a quick post.  My dear, beloved son is in the hospital and life has gotten a bit askew the last few days.  He is battling an infection from a cat bite and it's been a wee bit scary, I must say–red streaks up the arm and all that.  Its a persistent infection, too.  He's been in since the early hours of Sunday morning and probably won't go home until tomorrow.  

But this writing tip has been on my mind…

I talked a couple weeks ago about conflict and the importance of including it in every scene and on every page.  This is something we all know, right?  But knowing it and doing it are not one and the same.  So I've been looking at how established authors create conflict in their writing.  (Let me just take this moment to put in a plug for reading.  It is the BEST way to learn more about writing.  Read, read, read.  When I meet someone who wants to write a book but they don't read I'm shocked.  More like stunned.  Because why do you want to write if you're not reading?)

So here's what I've really been noticing: the good authors give every character conflict.  For instance, I'm reading a mystery by a Swedish author and in it the main character talks on the phone to her sister.  Its a low-tension scene.  But the main character's sister talks about how exhausted she is, and how she had to get up with the kids the night before and how her deadbeat, arrogant husband can never deign to get up with them.  Conflict.  In an otherwise low-tension scene.

This can generally be done fairly easily and often in dialogue or implied.  In other words, you don't have to go back and reinvent the wheel or the scene in order to make this work. 

Have you used this technique in your writing? Have you noticed it used in books you've read?

*Forgive the absence of a photo, I don't have time to find one.  I'm off to take my son a Frappucino.

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.