My 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.