Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Writing True Tension

Stephen King famously said, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings."  To many, he's telling writers to kill off the main characters, or at least some prominent ones, to make a better story.  King himself did this in The Stand when the novel hit a brick wall - he wrote a bomb going off in Boulder that killed most of the Colorado Free Zone leaders.

However, I feel what King was getting at was more complex.  What he's basically saying is that in order to have true tension, and thus have the reader on the edge of his or her seat and wondering what will happen next, you have to write outside of your comfort zone and give the bad guys a chance.

Most of us - I was going to say all of us, but there are some strange people out there - want to see good triumph in the end.  Even more, we want it known that good will triumph no matter what.  It's comforting as a writer to know that the hero always gets the girl and rides off into the sunset.  Unfortunately, it can bore the tears out of a reader.

I've become attached to two TV shows - Supernatural and Once Upon A Time.  The supernatural setting is good enough, but the best thing is that every so often, the villains score a victory.  The problem I've always had with Sleepy Hollow and Grimm is that I never have any doubt the good guys will win the episode.  That bores me, so I stop watching.

Creating genuine doubt is tough, but it makes for a much better story.  Kill off one of your most darling characters or burn down the childhood home.  Have your heroine carry the villain's child after being raped or create a storm that makes accomplishing the task the way it was planned impossible.  It makes readers wonder, Oh shit, how are they gonna fix this?

Maybe I just like to overthink things, but I prefer doubt until the end of a story.  Why?  Because it's more realistic like that, and we all know real life is never easy.  You want people to think that what you're writing could really happen(within the confines of the universe you created).  When a reader buys into your story like that, you can take that person on one heck of a ride.

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