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?

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