Oh No, She Didn’t! Oh, Yes She Did!

Writers must always be mindful of why and how characters handle certain situations. Otherwise, characters’ actions come off as forced, contrite, inaccurate, or artificial. In other words, a wonky response is the kiss of writerly death.

So, a writer must follow the rules of logic. If X, then Y. If Johnny loses his father’s favorite watch down the drain pipe, then Johnny has to go after it. Makes sense, right? We, the reader, can go along with it. We can follow Johnny into the sewer…erm, well maybe not, but we can certainly cheer him on or at least wish him luck!

But what happens when, “If X, then Y,” gets boring? For example, Sally is angry at Alice, so Sally tells Alice she’s angry. It’s straight forward. Expected, Predictable. Bor-ing!

Writers, then, have the job of adding, “The Twist.” (AKA Tension.) HOW???

Let’s use the Sally example. She’s mad at Alice. Maybe she’s mad because Alice stained the shirt she borrowed. Maybe Alice forgot to meet her at the movies. Maybe Alice asked the boy Sally likes to the spring fling! (Oh no, she didn’t! Oh, yes she did!)

But that’s not enough!!!!

To really maximize the tension, what if Sally has a hard time sticking up for herself? What if her mom taught her not to express anger or disappointment in others (and nobody, I mean nobody, can diss Miss Manners!)? How about Sally turns into a fire-spewing dragon whenever she loses control of her fury? (Had to throw in something for us paranormal/fantasy types.)

How might this play out? Well, it could be as simple as:

Sally is mad at Alice for asking the cute boy to the dance, so she thinks about how often her best-friend-in-the-entire-world-always-gets-what-she-wants-and-never-thinks-about-Sally’s-feelings. This thought triggers a physical reaction (her fists clench, her jaw tightens, her ears burn, her head pounds, her stomach twists). But something stops her from speaking. Her throat tightens. Her voice squeaks. She says, “Oh, you’re a great couple! I can’t wait to see your dress!”

End result: Sally’s seething and Alice has no idea.

Suppressed. Anger. THAT’S tension!

Anybody bored? I didn’t think so. 😉

A fine example of this set-up (where a character has a particular thought/physical reaction, but says something entirely different) occurs throughout Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger.

What other examples have y’all come across? Have you used this technique in your writing?


Be sure to check out Sarah’s debut post with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog where she shares her writerly goals for 2011!

11 comments on “Oh No, She Didn’t! Oh, Yes She Did!

  1. Sarah says:

    It’s not just tension–it’s the way people usually act, just portayed really well, deeply within one character’s POV, complete with all five senses, accompanying thoughts, and emotions. Most people don’t say exactly what they mean; they don’t come out and name their feelings and say why they’re feeling that way. It’s just the writer’s job to let the reader see all the angles so they feel the tension along with the character. Great post!

  2. Ciara Knight says:

    What a great post. I wish I could send a contest entrant to your site. Sometimes stories are well constructed, plot points perfect, and all the other characters jump off the page. BUT, the author tries to hard with the heroine. I find this a lot in entries where the author tells the reader all about heroine’s history and how she’s been damaged because of it, but never shows it. Things happen around her and she reflects to the past, but no reaction to the stimuli. Does that make sense? LOL

  3. Charli Mac says:

    Great stuff. I do this all the time.

    My heroine’s POV opens with her nervous hands twisting in and out of one another. The closer she gets to home her stomach churns the little contents they hold, making gurgling noises she’s sure the cab driver hears. As she gets out of the cab her body goes stiff, the street is quiet all except for the departing car wheeling away and her rumbling tummy. Her hands continue to ring and that uneasy feeling in her gut moves slowly up her throat with each step toward the front door. She swears she’s gonna puke. Seeing her four older brothers in the living room, laughing and carrying on, she feels a sense of isolation. Her hands are clammy, mouth dry, and she can’t find the courage to go in. As she turns to leave her name is called out and the bony arms of one of her brothers sweeps her up, spinning her around with a lung crushing bear hug. As he releases her she smiles wide. The wide smile is an attempt to surpress the vomit at the back of her throat and to pretend she is happy to be home.

  4. Christine Fonseca says:

    I am all about authenticity – and the truth is that people, especially teens, are seldom logical. As long as I can get at the heart of their emotions – and their motivations – my work will read authentic. At least, I HOPE so!

  5. Lydia K says:

    Tension is a hard thing to do well. I’m always working on it (and I need a lot more work, LOL!)

    Great post Laura!

  6. I think I get the point. Actions rather than words must reveal the character’s state of mind. Those actions must be in concert with the personality the author has written into the character, so that the reader isn’t frustrated by absurdity.

    Yet, the absurd should happen via circumstances that cause the reader to believe the character really might react in such a way. Thus, the text becomes tense as the reader wonders and tries to guess what this character might do next, fearing the worst. Better yet if the worst turns out to be even worse than the reader thought! Lions, tigers, and bears! Lions, tigers, and bears!

    Thank you for making me think this into words. I needed that. I hope it makes sense. Your post made a lot of sense. It makes me want to write. Blessings to you, Laura…

  7. Kerri says:

    Nicely said! It’s something I need to work on. I love a story that amps up tension like that.

  8. lbdiamond says:

    Sarah–great point! Behavior matters & I agree about pulling in all the senses to describe it.

    Ciara–excellent thought! A character reflecting on past experiences is important, but not to the exclusion of the character reacting to the here and now.

    Charli Mac–NICE example! Thanks for sharing. I totally felt it!

    Christine–authenticity is sometimes hard to capture, but is essential to believability.

    Lydia–LOL! I need a lot of practice with it too!

    Carol Ann-Lions, tiger, bears, oh my! LOL! Yes, there must be consistency with the character’s behaviors and his or her personality.

    Kerri–tension is essential to enliven a story. Thanks for stopping by! 😀

  9. Great post! This is why it’s so important to know who your characters are before writing the first draft. Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of time trying to increase the tension on the pages and missing out on a golden opportunity to let the emotions deepen the conflct.

    I’m linking this to my post tomorrow. 😀

  10. Amie Borst says:

    this is a great post! it’s so true! we’re always told to SHOW don’t TELL and physical reactions really deliver!

  11. vtremp says:

    I’m late to the party again, but great post! Nice illustration of creating tension out of what could have been a very boring moment.

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