Sunday, November 29, 2015

Turkey or Tofu, Tenderness, and—Tension

Whatever your personal protein, your novel needs both the fondness and frustration that describes any family gathering. The interplay between those? That makes novels tick.

Holidays expose the best and worst in everyone, including novelists. The bigoted uncle, the family mythology about who’s smart or successful, the Brussels Sprouts with cinnamon (?)—fodder for Charles Baxter’s observation that “Hell is story friendly.”

Yet fiction always needs a touch up, whether describing Thanksgiving or anything else. Colum McCann believes that “literature can make familiar the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar is very much about the dispossessed, and so the value of literature seems to me to go into the stories that not everybody wants to tell.”

Those stories range from those living on the brink, in the streets, or simply starved for the Norman Rockwell painting we worry that everyone else is enjoying.

Tip: Tension resides in the irony between expectation and reality.

Some novelists enjoy adding tension as much as encountering Aunt Agatha, who blissfully reminds you that you’ve neither published nor married. What’s wrong with you?

That’s tension all right, and as Jodie Renner reminds, “All genres of fiction, not just thrillers, suspense novels, and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers eagerly turning the pages.”

Ready to write fiction as rich in tension as holiday food has calories? Here’s how:

~ Desire.
            That starts it all. Someone wants something apparently unattainable.

~ Change.
            That desire involves giving something up, even if it’s only the harbor of the familiar.

~ Twist.
Corey would like to be rich and adore everyone in her family. Yawn. Wouldn’t we all? Astonish us with how Corey’s longing both resembles and differs from everyone else’s.

~ Secret.
No one cares that Corey salted the filling instead of the caramel crust. But planning to offer herself to her brother-in-law? That’s a secret, like what you deliberately omit:

what creates tension . . . 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. – Raymond Carver

Yes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Leo Tolstoy). Fiction needs idiosyncrasy, universality, and tension. That needn’t deter renewed hope that the next holiday will exceed your expectations. And why not? The cycle continues...

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