Every writer knows that stories need tension in order to grip readers. Many self-help books teach writers how to add tension, with easy-to-understand points set out in a helpful framework to explain how a story might work. They direct a reader in much the same way that your dad taught you how to dance.
Just as your dad took control of your feet, the author places the newbie’s feet on top of their own and waltzes them through the process of writing, except, when the newbie is back on their own two feet, they aren’t entirely sure what just happened. The problem is that all stories are not the same. We all know it, deep down. Yet, when the going gets tough, the temptation of a magic bullet to fix things can be strong, but it can also result in a dead story.
Self-help books are vital to learning and, contrary to what I seem to be saying, I advise anyone interested in storycraft to read them all, as you must learn if you hope to improve. Just remember that, while they can show you the waltz, they must not guide your feet. They can help you understand how to write, but have no business directing your story – which, after all, you alone must write.
The vast majority of unpublished stories suffer from anxiety, not the good stuff a story needs but the bad stuff; the writer’s. In their drive to create plot [tension] writers try to implement all that self-help advice about framework but instead they strangle the relaxed [competent] storytelling that breeds reader confidence. Rules are necessary for the writer to learn and grow but cannot override story – which must, and does, rule them all.
So what’s a writer to do?
Let’s consider how that vital ‘good tension’ relates to story, as it’s often the main source of anxiety for the writer. It’s no coincidence that this is also the part where self-help authors get most tangled up and so I’ll be as brief as possible, with my take on how to untangle the problem, with a little help from Sandra Bullock.
Writers worry about what to put in their stories. They’re often told to avoid ‘padding’ i.e. the non-essential and boring writing that readers hate. Yet, in some ways padding IS story – just offered in a misguided, unformed way, because the writer doesn’t fully understand their own story and what’s important to it. In another attempt to help the newbie, authors sometimes tell them to focus on ‘story strands’, the plot and subplot running through a story. This is good advice, yet talk of ‘story strands’ in relation to a book comprising scenes [which read like pools of events] doesn’t help, because not all story is ‘plot’, in the traditional way we think of it [even within a tightly plotted thriller, there are moments when the writer must introduce things like setting and character]. There’s a difference between story mode and plot mode, though both are part of the story and, unhelpfully, one scene may contain both elements.
In order to see the difference we must be aware of moments when plot comes to the fore and when story world is dominant. The film Gravity is an excellent example, as the plot [story tension] is very pronounced, with deadly meteor showers, low oxygen tanks and fires in space illustrating how to keep the audience hooked. Yet even sure-fire elements like these can fail if poorly done. It’s the ease and competency of the storytelling that holds us, just like Shawshank (note, the story environment of both provide underlying tension). Think how these high-octane scenes compare with those in which the heroine can think beyond the crisis at hand. High-quality stories don’t need to worry about hooks and story arcs and the like once the story has your attention and pays you in treats. The hooks are there but aren’t regimented, which is the main failing of the ‘framework’ teach-yourself titles.
Whether you plot, or not, be aware of tension in your story. Be kind to your reader and treat them with lots of exciting scenes and underlying anxiety, but be aware of how everything in your story ultimately relates to truth. The more time you devote to thinking about your story, the characters; their relationships, problems and intrigues, the better you’ll be able to transform that padding into the essential texture of your tale. The more your characters and their lives seem true, that they exist beyond a writer’s rulebook, the more eager your reader will be to stay the distance and finish the book. This is why Stephen King tells us that plot is clunky and artificial, because the truth in your story is the guiding light leading to masterful storytelling.
It’s vital to seek help with the difficult job of writing when something’s not working but, in our rush to fix things, we must pause before arming ourselves with magic bullets. The story might not survive.