Carver’s Menace

Scary-ShadowMy Creative Writing students like to tease me. Every time we begin a new section, some new feature of writing we’ve not yet discussed, I begin by saying something like, “This is one of the most important aspects of fiction.” And while I maintain that setting, character, plot, etc. are all integral and paramount to good fiction, I wonder if there is one or two constant traits of fiction that separates it from other forms of writing.

Ask me tomorrow, and I may give you a different answer, but if I were pressed now to boil fiction down to it’s two most fundamental parts, I would say that they are tension (some call it conflict, some call it menace) and language.

For now, let’s look at tension. Each story is essentially composed of three things; a character, the desire of that character, and something standing between the two. This may take various forms, and often does. Still, all three elements are there. We may have a character and a desire, but without something to overcome, there is no story.

It is easy to see this in most mainstream fiction, but becomes a little more obscure when analyzing literature. If we consider Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a collection of stories of couples breaking up and doing other unspeakable things in the name of love, it becomes harder to say what the specific desire is of each character. Some are clear, others are not.

For example, imagine a husband and wife having a cup of coffee. Their dialogue is stifled, stiff. We catch hints of unrest in the marriage. The desires of the character may be the end of the marriage, or it may be the reconciliation. Either is sufficient to satisfy the requirement of character and desire, but what is it that must be overcome? Perhaps it’s the unfaithfulness of the spouse. Maybe it’s a reorganization of household finances to relieve the burden of stress that is weighing them down.

Not every conflict has to be for the freedom of America, or for the life of a loved one, or to save the world. Conflict happens every day.

Furthermore, disaster need not strike. The strained marriage need not dissolve into divorce. However, the reader needs to feel like it might. The wife need not throw her hot coffee in her husband’s face, but the reader must fear this. That fear, that unease in the reader, is where tension exists.

Raymond Carver, in his essay “On Writing,” says, “I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be a tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.”

One easy way to do this comes from Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction. In it, he suggests that the majority of stories take on certain shapes. One shape he mentions is called “Juggling.” Essentially, juggling is the term Stern uses to denote a character who is distracted by their thoughts. For example, a man is juggling chainsaws, but he’s thinking about his wife’s affair. By moving between action and thought, we can create tension. We’re concerned that his marriage may not survive, but we’re also worried about those chainsaws gnashing their teeth as they flip through the air. Doing this helps create character and develop tension.

As a writer, be aware of your characters—they are largely defined by what they desire. But you have an obligation to your readers—whatever it is that the character wants, make it tough to get.

9 Comments on Carver’s Menace

  1. dina rodriguez | March 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Reply

    First off that was a long blog and suprisingly i didnt get bored. Second this realy helped. I leared that you alwase have to keep the reader interested in your writing and to alwase have some sort of conflict. You cant just make a story all happy-go-lucky. Because that realy would be boring and you would probably be the worst author ever. I mean even My Little Pony has some kind of conflict. Sorry My Little Pony is a bad example but you get my point.

  2. Summer Connell | March 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Reply

    I think that a character would be more interesting in the story if it had some sort of tension or conflict. Like if a guy has been in love with a girl for several years and she’s always had a boyfriend or a problem meanign that she couldn’t go out with anyone, then that creates conflict for the guy if he wants to ask her out but can’t. That keeps the reader staying until the end of the story to find out if the guy finally gets with the girl. Or she dies. Either way having the guy in the story get the easy way instead of creating conflict will probably make the reader uninterested. And Dina your example was AMAZINGGG xD

  3. Dillon Miller | March 6, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Reply

    The conflict is key to survive. I’ve used this example a lot in the past week or so, but conflict is opposition. An example could be that light and dark cannot exist without the other, thereby forcing them to coexist. They are complete opposites, but the conflict for them is maintaining the balance.

  4. Drew Williams | March 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply

    What makes me want to pick up a book and read it forever is the tension. The feeling that something could go wrong at any moment and destroy everything the character cares about makes me want to keep reading. If nothing ever went wrong and everyone went about their happy day then a book or story would be boring.

  5. janet anderson | March 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Reply

    I think that if your writing a book, novel ,short story…etc there should always be some conflict if not the reader will be board and will be like this is the WORST book…etc i have ever read i like how you used the example the guy juggling chainsaw’s but in his mind thinking about his wife’s affair. In writing i like to think that the key to being a great writer is conflict i may be wrong but you want people to read your books and refer you to others cause it’s not boring and your not blabbering on and on about nonsense the reader wants to see some action CONFLICT!!! or in your story your character’s are having an intense convo. or argument that’s what makes the book more entertaining.

  6. JessicaRae Padilla | March 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply

    Coming up with conflict in stories is ki da easy for me because when I get into, I really get into. I like the feelings of well I’m writing I I feel le I’m expire ancient it. I have a really wild imagination when it comes to writing about characters and there struggles to get somewhere or some thing they want most. I think this can be a cause of me talking to different types of people through out the years and hearing the different struggles fiowed by success when ocomplished.

  7. Yes, I am still reading this each week. Just haven’t had time to post recently. Anyway…
    Conflict and tension are essential to any piece of fiction. Like you said, it doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t need to be grandiose. But it needs to be there. It can be as simple as the character wanting to go to the park but having a pile of work to finish, or as complex as the same character being forced to defuse a bomb strapped to her handicapped daughter’s chest, all the while keeping herself and the daughter calm–and while blindfolded.
    Write well, write often.

  8. De Zerae Fraijo | April 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Reply

    Personally, I would say that tension is close to the top of essential key elements to a story.
    I mean, how can there be a really good novel without it?
    Okay, maybe there could be a few, but I know that fiction and tension pretty much go hand-in-hand.
    Since I love to read fiction, I need to see tension.
    Sometimes it’s close to the beginning, other times it’s somewhere a little farther.
    Whatever the case, I look at tension and think whether or not it fits the story well.
    Some events really make my heart race, and others make me just shake my head in disappointment.

  9. This is very true because theres always a character who has to do something but theres always conflicts that stand in their way. This hells create alot of tension and amything unplannned may occur as well.

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