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!

Finishing and Fear

FearA few months ago, I asked my Twitter pals “What keeps you from finishing a project?” There were the usual chuckles about energy, holidays, ADD and shockingly fecund plot bunnies. But the real touchpaper of the discussion came from Melanie Francisco (AKA @blacklily_f, who is totally worth the follow): “Fear, Jill. I’m terrified of failing my story.”

We all have our pet excuses, but fear factored into many of the reasons writers pegged with impeding their ability to end: fear of judgment, fear of running out of ideas, fear of imperfections, fear of not doing the premise justice. Fear factors into many of the things we do. Fear can motivate us, or paralyze us.

Alas, I am but a poor victim. And so I turned to Faye Kirwin (penname Skye Fairwin, also a follow-worthy twitter peep at @Writerology). Faye is amazing. A wearer of many hats, Faye splits her time between writing, blogging about writing and psychology, running sprints on twitter, and delving deeper into the fantastical workings of the human mind. And granting interviews!

What is fear and why do we feel it, even when we’re in no danger?

Fear is something we’ve all felt, something we all recognise yet struggle to put into words. We know how it makes our hearts pound, mouths go dry, stomachs squeeze into tight balls, but defining fear and identifying the reason for it can be more mystifying.

Psychologically speaking, fear is that feeling of dread before something negative happens, prompting us to defend ourselves. It is a reaction to a perceived threat and evolved to be part of our bodies’ defence systems, so that we can respond immediately to danger—usually by escaping from it. In a world where we can be hit by a car or mugged while walking home or trapped in a burning building, it’s understandable to feel fear. Our physical well-being is being threatened by something and our bodies react to that with fear.

Danger doesn’t just have to be of the physical kind, though. It can be emotional too. We can fear damage to our sense of worth and competency, and fear things that can threaten us socially, like rejection. It’s this fear of failing, of being criticised, of feeling worthless and incapable, that can cripple writers the most.

But writers are so often told to edit and edit and edit again. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see the line between another round of edits because the story needs it, and draft after draft because of fear. I, especially, have a hard time telling one from the other. What can I do to differentiate?

Start by asking yourself whether you’re editing because the manuscript needs it or because you’re scared to show it to someone else. Fear of rejection can lead us to sabotage our efforts. No one can judge us if we don’t finish that novel, we can’t be criticised if no one reads it, and so we keep rewriting ad infinitum.

One way to differentiate between necessary editing and fear-fuelled editing is if you lose sense of what’s good and what’s bad. Are you changing things without knowing whether you’re making the story better? Are you continually tweaking sentences in search of the perfect wording? Are you reading and re-reading to forestall sending the manuscript off to your beta readers or editors?

If you think the answer is yes, take the plunge. Send it. Submit it. Get feedback on it. Then you can move forward.

So if fear of rejection can lead us to sabotage ourselves, are there any ways we can turn fear to our favor? Can fear ever be used to increase productivity, to be more creative, etc.?

Fear can be a great tool for building a deeper emotional connection between you, your characters and your readers. Sit down with a journal for 10 minutes and write about your fears. What’s causing you worry? What are you afraid will happen? How do you feel, physically and emotionally? Acknowledge your fears and reflect on them, then channel them into your story.

By writing about the emotions you’re feeling, you can make your characters’ own emotions more poignant, sharp, raw and real. Pour your vulnerability into a story to create a far more meaningful connection between you and your reader—because, in all likelihood, they’ll have felt something similar at some point. If they can relate to it, it’s that much easier to craft an emotional experience, one that will resonate with them long after they’ve finished reading.

Channelling your fear into your writing also has the added benefit of helping you to sort through your emotions. Only when you’ve acknowledged and thought clearly and honestly about something can you begin to do something about it. That’s one reason writers get stuck—they’re afraid of rejection or failure and are afraid to confront that fear. Get it out in the open, use it to deepen the emotion in your writing, and free yourself up to be more productive and creative.

After my last manuscript was ready for beta readers, I sent it out and then… had a panic attack a half hour later. I was monitoring the internet constantly, waiting for anyone to say anything. I felt sick. I couldn’t sleep. I ate way too much. This continued until I started to hear back from readers. For many of us, even after getting up the courage to click ‘send’, the fear remains. Is this normal? Healthy? Do you have any advice for dealing with it?

It’s completely normal to feel anxious after opening yourself up to criticism like that. It’s when you start to dwell on it and it causes you problems that it becomes unhealthy.

It’s around this point that fear can turn into anxiety, which is a related but slightly different emotion. Anxiety involves anticipating a threat, something unknown that poses a danger to you. In our case, that might be the anticipation of rejection that causes us anxiety. When we’ve sent off a manuscript and are waiting for responses from readers, the situation is out of our hands. We can no longer control it, we’re expecting potentially negative responses, and so anxiety builds up.

Learning to deal with fear so that we’re no longer overwhelmed by it is the first step towards banishing those unpleasant feelings of panic and anxiety. Reach out to others, write about it in a journal, do an activity that you know calms you—anything that distracts you from thoughts about your beta readers’ responses. Remember: you can’t change anything now so don’t waste your energy worrying about it.

If you continue to feel anxious even after that, identify when you’re having thoughts that focus on failure—like receiving negative feedback from readers—and replace them with memories of your past successes and positive thoughts. We tend to forget about the fun moments we had while writing, the scenes we nailed and the good responses we’ve had in the past. Instead we brood over our lowest points, even when the positive times outweigh the negative. Remind yourself of your achievements, that your beta readers are there to help you to make your story even better, and use that built-up emotion to propel you forward with the next part of your project.

(Interested in learning more about tricking your brain into working?  Faye recently published an awesome workbook that teaches readers how to use psychology to master the art of daily writing. You can find out more about it here!)