Creating Tension

archerFor this week’s blog post, I’d like to unpack just one sentence from Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch’s paper, Toward a General Psychological Model of Tension and Suspense (which published in the Feb 2015 issue of Frontiers in Psychology): “…[T]ension experiences originate from states of conflict, instability, dissonance, or uncertainty that trigger predictive processes directed at future events of emotional significance.”

Isn’t that just the meatiest sentence? To get through this, let’s look at each of the key words and phrases: conflict, instability, and dissonance; uncertainty; and predictive processes and emotional significance. Then we’ll trot through a few examples about why each of these elements is important. (Science! Whee!)

Conflict, Instability, and Dissonance occur when the comfortable, homeostatic everyday of the character is interrupted. When people are struggling toward disparate goals, when something’s off, when things are crazy, it makes characters deeply uncomfortable, and they long for the peace and predictability they once enjoyed. This lays the groundwork for tension.

Uncertainty This aspect of tension usually arises in the form of an unanswered question (or series of related questions) that a character really wants answered. Who pulled the trigger? When will the bomb go off? Why are all the wallabies disappearing? What will happen when the boss finds out? Will I get away with stealing my husband’s last cookie while he was out skiing this morning? The experience of tension resolves when all pertinent questions are answered.

Predictive Processes and Emotional Significance Anticipation and expectations are huge in creating tension, especially when geared toward things that matter deeply to the characters. Tension is the highest when anticipated outcomes vary greatly between really good outcomes, which trigger hope, and really bad ones, which trigger fear. (These scenes are tenser than scenes with outcomes that are more neutral.) Character- and reader- expectations can either be validated (yay, you were right) or violated (surprise, you were wrong!).

These things together create a longing for resolution, and drag tension along until the situation is resolved one way or the other. To help clarify how each of these elements is important, let’s look at a few examples.

My husband had a friend in college who later married and had one son. She doted on this baby constantly, giving him everything he wanted and making certain he never got so much as a scratch on him. She never left him with a babysitter, hardly got any sleep, and couldn’t bear to let him cry for even a moment. She sounds like a typical helicopter mom spoiling her kid rotten, right? Not a lot of tension there.

Not quite. To simplify greatly, for medical reasons, if this child cried too hard, his respiratory system would malfunction, resulting quickly in permanent brain damage or death. This one fact- involving predictive processes and emotional significance- changes the situation from that of a helicopter mother of a spoiled only child to that of a harried young woman fighting desperately to keep her son alive.

It works the other way around too. Rockfish regularly experience conflict, but their inability to anticipate, to dread, to long for resolution to the conflict, makes them unable to experience tension in the way that people do. (Likewise, a fish wouldn’t be excited about an upcoming event either, unlike my kids when my husband and I start chatting about what we might have for dessert. SO MUCH TENSION.) To use another example, if you remove just the emotional significance of a situation, the tension isn’t there- because if the character doesn’t care whether or not they win the Baron Brownie’s Bread Baking Bonanza, then why should readers? Or maybe they do care, but are one-hundred-percent going to win because they’re the only entrant; in that case, there is no uncertainty in the situation, and therefore no tension. Removing any one of these aspects removes the tension, or at least weakens it greatly. You as the writer would have to ramp up the tension in some other place in some other way using all these aspects.

A final element I’d like to mention that isn’t in our above sentence (but does come up later in the paper) is control: If your character is wallowing in all this conflict, but has complete control over the situation, they’re not a person I want to hang out with for an entire book. It is the lack of control on the part of some significant character in the scene that makes it so tense. To go back to the sick baby example above, it would change the situation profoundly if the mother could easily make her son well, but chose to keep him sick. There might still be tension in the situation, but it shifts our sympathies away from the mother, making her the villain rather than the hero. (This lack of control is often most apparent when the character is trying their darnedest to exert control through actions that just keep digging them deeper and deeper in trouble.)

When writing a scene (or heck, a whole book), try using each of these elements to ramp up the tension. And if you want to dig a little deeper into the psychology of all this, read the full article, which was suuuuuper interesting and contains way more than I had the room to discuss, right HERE. You’ll feel like you’re in college again! Whee!

Until next time, happy writing!

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The Great Annual Resolutions Post

calvinresolutionHowdy, folks! Hey, look, we all survived another year! Wowza!

I made a few resolution shifts midyear last year. I switched over from the paper calendar system I had been using to a phone app called Habitica that is delightfully nerdy and keeps me on my toes. It taps into my love of check boxes, but then also has a built in reward system, so it works very well for me, and I think I’ll cling to it forever.

Overall, I had a good year, without too many dropped balls on my goals. My exercise goals got derailed every now and then by rugby injuries, and I jumped ship on a few writing projects, switching over to things that were more interesting at the time (because squirrel brain: the struggle is real). And as mentioned a few weeks ago, I did manage to scratch and claw my way to receiving Writer of the Year from the Alaska Writers Guild. But the goal I know you’re all just dying to know about: the rejections goal.

As you may recall from this post last year, I had a goal to receive at least forty-eight rejections. I counted short story submissions, queries, competitions- anything that pitted my writing against a slush pile. The final count is in aaaand… I failed! *sad trombone* As of December 31, I only tallied forty-four rejections.

I’m not being too hard on myself, because I still managed to achieve the two main objectives of the rejection goal: I got better at taking rejections as impersonal matters of preference, and I pushed myself to submit waaaay more than I usually do. As a result, I also had way more acceptances than I normally do! And as an added benefit that I hadn’t even anticipated, I had a super productive year for short stories too, because I had to make sure that I had fresh material to shop around as my old store of shorts got published. Overall, it was a very good year for my writing!

So I think I’m gonna stick with what works. I’ll keep with a forty-eight rejections goal for this year as well, since I felt really pushed and still didn’t quite manage to make the goal. I think I can hit it for reals this time! For novels, since I didn’t stick with the titles I had planned to work on, but still managed to get good work done with other projects, this year I think I’ll just drop the specifics altogether and just have a goal of two new first drafts, and a round of edits each for two first drafts from last year. I’ll work on whatever sounds most fun in the moment! I also plan to average one new short per month, although I don’t plan on worrying too much about how marketable they all are. And for daily goals, I plan a baseline of 500 words per day, and ten minutes of backshop, with Sundays off to rest my weary brain meats. I have goals for my spiritual, mental, and physical health as well, but that’s it for my writing goals.

Whew! All the things! I should have plenty to keep myself busy over the next year. I would love, love, love to hit that rejections goal, and maybe even outstrip this year’s number of acceptances. Heck, if we’re getting really pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to pick up an agent as well, haha, but that one’s a little less in my control. The only thing I can do is keep researching, stay consistent, and continue to hone my craft as much as I can. So that’s what I’ll do!

How about you fine folks? Any exciting new goals for this year? Let’s chat about them in the comments section! I’d love to know your plans!

Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year as well!

With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Writing Craft Listening List

podcastHello, fair denizens of the internet! Last week, I shared a reading list on some possible game-changing craft books (link to full post here!). This week, I thought I’d try something just a little different and cover a few media beyond the written word. If you like to hit a different learning style every now and then, try some of these other types of literary learning.

 

YouTube channels!

Lessons from the Screenplay So I stumbled across this one during my regular YouTube perusing, because Google is stalking us all and knows what we think and there is no hope once the AI uprising begins. But for now, we get these great targeted suggestions! Hurray!

Ellen Brock’s Novel Writing Advice So these videos aren’t visually stunning, but I like to just turn them on and let them run in the background while I wash dishes or what-have-you, kind of like a podcast. They all come in under ten minutes and have helpful tips and ideas that are specific and applicable. Definitely worth a watch.

Ted-Ed Ted-Ed is kind of awesome in all ways ever (and I’ve used it for researching everything under the sun) and they have some very good writing lectures about the psychology behind stories, the hero’s journey, worldbuilding, language craft, you name it. And they’re all so charmingly animated, too! I like to watch these with my kids- we get entertained and educated at the same time!

(Want more YouTube channels? Check out Kelly Gurnett’s 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers!)

 

Podcasts!

Writing Excuses, by authors Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and web cartoonist Howard Tayler Alpha reader and fellow Sanderson fan M. Elizabeth Tait started me on this podcast, back when I did not do podcasts. The fact that she got me to willingly try out some newfangled doohickey them kids is into really speaks for itself.

Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast This one was pointed out to me by a librarian friend, and she’s right, it’s fun and informative without ever getting too dense. This one throws a wider net than Writing Excuses, including publishing info as well as craft.

 

Lectures!

The Great Courses After receiving a writing grant, I nabbed a few of these audio classes, but there are tons more out there. My fave so far is Writing Great Fiction, and I can’t wait to get started on Building Great Sentences, which I sincerely hope is just as nerdy and pedantic as it sounds. (But seriously, is it just me or do they use the word GREAT a bit much?)

Master Class Okay, so I haven’t done this one, but I reeeeeally want to do the new one with Judy Blume, it looks fantastic. Here’s a link to it. There are other writers on there as well, and I’m sure any of them would be just super. *stares longingly at screen*

 

And there are always classes through your local higher education institution. You pay a bit more, but you also get some swanky feedback and networking as part of the deal. Give it a think or two!

Anyway, I hope the last few weeks have been useful. I’ve really been on a craft kick lately (maybe my brain’s way of punching me in the butt after the especially bad first draft I limped out this last NaNo) and I feel like I’ve been getting a lot out of it. Maybe you will too! And as always, please share any other resources you love that I’ve missed in my list, and I will send you a dozen imaginary bonbons straight to your cerebral cortex. Promise!

Happy writing!

Writing Craft Reading List

Okay, I have to post my word count graph from NaNoWriMo because it makes me laugh. Can you guess which days I was out of town?

Stats

Anyway, I hope you’re all hitting your own writing goals and pushing forward with your literary dreams. I know sometimes my own hopes and aspirations can seem a little laughable, but we’ve gotta keep pushing forward, even through the rough patches.

One of the things that can show a person is serious about their business is a commitment to improvement, to continuing their education in their field. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love learning, so reading books about the craft of writing is kind of the no-brainer intersection of those loves.

I read a lot of craft books, and I’ve definitely found some to be more useful than others. Here are a list of some of the craft books that have either had the greatest impact on me, or that I think at least have potential to be of use to you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks I do believe this was the first craft book I ever read, and it’s stuck with me ever since. (Seriously. It’s in my reference case at the desk I’m sitting at right now. It is hugging my shin as I type.) I don’t even remember a whole lot of specifics from the book, but it impacted me deeply and marked the start of my feeling like I might actually be published some day.

No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty Being a huge NaNo fan, I didn’t love this one as much as I wanted to, but I think a big part of that was that not having a plot really is a problem for me, haha. I have a hard time just pounding out words without some idea of what I’m getting at. But this book was useful to me for encouraging better writing habits- most importantly, consistency and working on a deadline.

The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank Okay, so this is really a grammar book, not a craft book, but it’s one of the more engaging and fun grammar books out there, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read more grammar books than the average human. If you feel like your language could use a little cleaning up (or you’re just an incorrigible nerd), this book could be worth a read.

On Writing by Stephen King Part memoir, part craft book, this is a bit of a straddler as far as genres go, but I really enjoyed it anyway. (Read the full review here!) It had been on my to-read list forever (but really, what isn’t?), but I was so glad when a friend finally just bought it for me just to make me shut up about this one corner of my litany of literary eventualities. I won’t say that this book gave me much new information regarding craft, but I did enjoy a sense of affinity while reading it, and I like the no-nonsense tone.

Writer Mama by Christina Katz Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this one, and I think there are two main reasons for this. First, I found a lot of the suggestions to be impractical for my situation. (I basically stopped paying attention after reading the “hire a nanny or a daycare so that you can write” part.) And second, most of the advice targets a career path in nonfiction article writing, while I hope for a career as a traditionally published fiction author. I probably could have pressed on with one or the other problem, but not both. Seriously, I’m making this book sound worse than it is. If you can afford/don’t mind using childcare and are looking at freelance article work, this is probably the book for you. With lots of practical exercises, bulletized tips, and query/submission tips, this book as a lot to give. Just… not to me.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott I think I read half of this book aloud to whatever poor schmuck happened to be standing within earshot of me. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this is a bit memoirish, and a bit craftish, but it’s all muddled together without any distinctions between the two. And it is beautifully written. I think my favorite thing about this book was how frank and funny and hopeful it is. I may not have encountered much craft stuff that I didn’t already know, but I felt a lot of encouragement and comradery throughout.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss Haha, that title. That cover. And with the rallying cry of “Sticklers unite!” how could I resist? Again, this is more a grammar (specifically punctuation) book than a craft book, but I’m putting it here anyway. I was laughing out loud by the preface. Truly, if you have any interest in punctuation, you should read this, and then priggishly correct all your friends. It’s lighthearted and accessible, a rant and a romp that I couldn’t stop snickering over.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder This is one of those books that I heard recommended for years before actually procuring a copy. And really, it’s more for screenwriting than for novel writing, but a lot of the principles are the same. This book is very practical and provides a strict formula to follow, laying out how to craft a tightly structured screenplay blow by blow. This book may not be as inspiring and artful as the other craft books on this list, but it is easy to read and easy to follow without any of the wait-for-the-muse mumbo jumbo that I so love and hate.

The next craft book I’m going to read is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Like so many of the other books on this list, these both came to me highly and repeatedly recommended.

How about you fine readers? Any books I’m missing out on? Please let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!