Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Q & A 114

I just received a rejection from an agent who said that my story lacked tension. My story is about 2 kids who go back in time, and must find a person (Pieter Bruegel) in order to come back home. In the meantime, they face various obstacles on their way to meeting this person. It's fast-paced and light. They have to overcome bed-bugs in one chapter. In other chapter, they get stuck working in someone's art shop while they should be out looking for Bruegel to get them back home. Each chapter has an obstacle, which the 2 friends work together to solve. There is character growth at the end of the story. It's not a poignant story meant to make you cry or have some terrific revelation at the end. It's meant to be a jolly good read.
Is there a way to have my kind of story have 'enough tension,' or is that an entirely different kind of story?

It's hard to say what kind of tension is lacking, without reading it. In the most obvious sense of the word, I would guess that the reader doesn't care about the bedbugs, because they won't ultimately prevent the kids from finding Pieter Bruegel. How long does it take them to find him? Five days? Suppose they were told they had three days to find him, or they could never get home. Now any obstacle that gets in their way could be disastrous, rather than merely annoying. Figure out the least amount of time it could possibly take them to find Bruegel, and give them even less. They'll be worried. They'll be nervous. They'll be tense. And so will the readers.


Anonymous said...

For what it’s worth, I read somewhere recently about the difference between obstacles and real conflict. (I wish I could give proper credit for this)

Obstacles: “A man and woman are on a picnic and are suddenly overrun by ants.”

Conflict: “A man and woman are on a picnic and suddenly the woman’s husband shows up.”

Conflict builds tension, where as obstacles only seem to be something for the reader to wade through to get to the next conflict.

Chris Eldin said...

Anon, That's a brilliant example! Thank you. My story has very creative and sometimes humorous obstacles. But now I see that my overall story-arc lacks that kind of conflict that you illustrated with your example. Got it now. Thanks!

EE, thanks so much for posting my question. I'm very good at handling feedback and criticism, when I can understand it. Now I have a good sense of what the agent meant. Thanks again!!!


Anonymous said...

Anon 3:52-

Maybe you saw it here:

(Can't post a link so you'll have to cut-and-paste.)

I liked it too.

Bernita said...

Anon, the differentiationbetween complication and conflict was made on Agent Kristin's blog, Pub Rants.

Anonymous said...

Takoda, was this for the story we saw the query on at:

Did the agent read a partial? a full? Do you think you have tension in the book, but it's not coming across in your first pages or your synopsis?

Brenda said...

I second EE - give them a time limitation. This must be done by ____ or ___ will happen.

One thing I strive to do with my stories is why this person, but WHY NOW? What's so urgent that this story has to be told? What's so important that it totally effects their lives? Why can't it wait?

Deb Dixon's GMC covers this time question very well. Dorothy could have lingered in Oz, but she was in a rush because she thought her aunt was ill. Every thing that interrupted her journey was bigger and more dramatic because she had to get back FAST rather than taking her time.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Phoenix, thanks for asking! Yes, it is that facelift. See how much I owe EE? Two very awesome agents read a full and rejected. And the second one said it was because of lack of tension. She's right. I've written a fun, adventure story where the kids live in the 1500s (so it's tangentially educational), but there is no real urgency to them coming home. Lots of obstacles, but no conflict.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate EE posting this question and giving me ideas, as well as you all helping to explain it. I thought 'tension' meant 'poignancy'--meaning you'll have to wipe a tear or two. I was way off, and I consider today as a day I really grew as a writer.

It will take work to go through my story and give the story arc tension, but now that I know what it is, I know exactly how I'm going to do it. And it's going to be way cool!!

HUGS all around. And of course, CHEERS!!

Chris Eldin said...

Hi EE, These two sentences came out all wrong: "See how much I owe EE? Two very awesome agents read a full and rejected."

What I meant is that with your help on my query, I got the attention of two awesome agents.

Yikes. And I try to call myself a writer.

Thanks for everything. I'm going to the corner now.

Anonymous said...

I consider today as a day I really grew as a writer.

May we all have many such break-through moments.

Best of luck on the rewrite, Takoda!

foggidawn said...

Takoda, I kind of liked it the way it was: See how much I owe EE? Two very awesome agents read a full and rejected. ;-)

Actually, I knew what you meant, but I still think the first version is pretty darn funny.

Congratulations -- if you're getting requests for fulls, you must be on the right track!

Beth said...

As folks here have said, you do need macro-tension (conflict) but tension doesn't stop there. Think of it as a cord, or series of cords, that stretches through the entire work.*

You can manipulate the tension cord by the questions you pose; by withholding information; by providing information that leads to more questions. Then there are the words you choose, and the arrangements of sentences and paragraphs. The latter creates what's known as surface tension. It's possible to have an action-packed story that has no real tension, simply because the story-telling is poorly handled.

(*credit for this concept goes to Gary Provost, whose book Beyond Style (sadly out of print now) revolutionized my writing.)

Twill said...

Personally, I hate the artificial clock thing. Like the old Sliders series, where the amount of time they were given was always exactly what it would take for them to do whatever they were going to do. *YAWN*

The other inportant thing about *conflict* is making sure that your characters are not too harmonious. Make sure that they have cross-purposes of some sort.

What if one of them had a reason for wanting to stay, perhaps to prevent them from going home?

Or what if they thought - or were given to think - that only one of them could get home?

Suppose Breugel (or an intermediary) discovered they were from the future, and wanted to make use of that, and then gave one of them incorrect information...

The thing about conflict is it doesn't have to be complicated like the above. Just having slightly crossed purposes - like one boy wanting to bring home some special tulip bulb, the other thinking it will cause problems - could be enough conflict to make it work.

Evil Editor said...

Personally, I hate the artificial clock thing. Like the old Sliders series, where the amount of time they were given was always exactly what it would take for them to do whatever they were going to do. *YAWN*

The suggestion was not to give them the amount of time they need, but less than they need. This would force some hard choices and some conflict between them.

Anonymous said...

How do you guys do italics on your comments?

Evil Editor said...

Surround what you want italicized with i and /i. Surround the i and the /i with <>.

ssas said...

If you put the two characters at odds with each other, that might add enough conflict.

And if you use a time limit, you might have them miss the deadline and then the Terrible Thing happens.

Robin S. said...

Hi takoda, Thanks for sharing the information about the rejection note for your novel.

Love the bit you posted about EE's help with the two rejections. Good one!

Hi twill, I just checked your blog. The entry on the author and his rejection was really interesting- I went on to look at his query/synopsis and rejection note.
Learned a lot in just a few minutes. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


Deborah K. White said...

Here's another thought on tension: In my novel, I know what's going to happen and if it is dangerous or not. For example, my heroine comes to a bridge with soldiers on it who maybe be searching for her with orders to kill her. In my first draft, I have her realize this and immediately decide not to cross that bridge. In my second draft, I have her wonder if they really are out to get her. Should she dare the bridge or is her reason to cross really important enough to risk it? Fear wins out, and she doesn't cross.

The first draft lacked tension since she knew the stakes immediately. The second draft has her tense, afraid, and unsure. It had tension.

You will notice that a lot of the advice here is on how to create situations that make you characters tense and unsure. However, if the kids genuinely think that the bed bugs may stop them or can seriously hurt them--and you work that tension into your story--then you've added tension. If your characters are sure they will overcome all the obstacles and every event in the story proves this belief to be correct, then the story lacks tension.

Hope this helped.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Twill, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think EE meant that the time pressures were a starting point. I like both of your ideas. I already know exactly how I'm going to do this, and it really will make my story better. Thanks!!

Robin, Thanks! When you discover your life is just a series of embarrassing events, then you stop sweating a lot of the small stuff!

ScenicCoffeeSex, thanks! My two characters are already at odds with each other. So the rework won't be a total overhaul. Great suggestion though!

Beth, I think that relates to pacing as well. You made some very good points. Thanks!

Deborah, I loved the example you gave about your book. Yes, it does help me. Thanks!!

Dave Fragments said...

There's a couple great dramas out there with CLOCKS in them. Gary Cooper in High Noon and its outer space ripoff - Outland. Not that CLOCKS don't appear prominently and with meaning in other movies.

In both movies, time pressures - the arrival of the villian - drive the stories. However, look to the writing, Outland is slow and flabby. High Noon is riveting. It's not the actors. Connery and Cooper are both superb. It is the writing, direction, and cinematography.

As the audience, we know that Cooper will never be ready to face four villians. He must stand alone in the street at noon. Outland is much less clear. There's too much equipment distracting us. Too many possibilities for Connery to get aid.

There is no mistaking the principles Cooper stands on. His struggles are presented in pristine, clear images and actions. High Noon ends less than two minutes after the bad guy is murdered and with almost no additional dialog. Cooper throws his badge into the dust in disgust and joins his quaker bride. What else is there to explain?

In Outland, we get overanalyzed and explained. We get too much talk. Connery's character is not written as clearly as Cooper's character. nor is his moral dilemna as clear in outer space as it was in the wild west. Perhaps outer space robbed the audience of the Quaker beliefs in non-violence.

High Noon has tension. We all know the good guy wins but High Noon has such complex secondary plots and images, we have to wait until the climax to understand their import. The deputies who quit, the townspeople who find a way to hide in the church and the Judge who leaves town with his lawbooks and Scales. Outland doesn't maintain that tension, doesn't draw the characters so tightly and personally, and it loses the imagery of the abandoned sheriff facing the outlaws - it dilutes the emotional impact.

That's my thoughts on tension.
WAIT UNTIL DARK is another tension filled movie, but it has no clock.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you drink a lot of coffee, I mean a lot of coffee,(or caffeine of any sort) the day before you are going to edit. Then, do not drink any coffee on that day. You will be very tense and it will work its way into the writing.
That's all I got.