Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tension in dialogue, exposition, and action

What I'm Reading: (This is a difficult question to answer these days since I'm midway into the selection of my fav high school's next community book. I'm reading about 10 things at once. I discard what won't work and keep reading what will. I hope to come back and finish all of the books on my desk someday.) The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier and The Wave by Todd Strasser.

What I'm Working On: The rewrite. Slayer 3.0.

I promised some notes from Master Donald's Tension on Every Page Workshop. It's a great, intense, albeit not cheap workshop. Everyone should take it.

The first day we looked at microtension in dialogue, exposition, and action. We learned ways to put tension on every page, in every paragraph.

Yes, it is as hard as it sounds.

However, Donald gave us a few keys to remember. In dialogue, the tension occurs between people and it shows up in what is said, not the auxiliary actions and anecdotal thoughts of the speakers. We practiced putting all the tension into the spoken word -- no tags, no anything but dialogue. We looked at pages from Jayne Ann Krentz's White Lies as an example of how to do this well -- subtly in this case, but well. (Check out pages 38-39. What do you think?)

In exposition, the tension is inside the POV (point of view). We checked out Scott Westerfield's Pretties to see how it's done. The key is to create a situation where the character feels or wants two opposing things at the same time or where the character should clearly feel one way, but -- surprise -- she feels exactly opposite of what we expect. (We studied pages 44-45.)

Tension in action follows a similar pattern. You create the tension through emotions in conflict or ideas at war. "The door flew open and Daphne dove away from the intruder. She skidded across the floor and smashed into a file cabinet." BORING! The previous little passage is action, but there's nothing to it that scares us or keeps us reading. Instead, it sounds more like the assembly directions for a bicycle in a box. "Daphne held her breath. She couldn't decide whether she wanted the intruder to open her door or not. He'd keep looking until he found her. Wasn't it better to just get it over now? She didn't have to wait long. The door swung open, but Daphne's self-preservation instinct kicked in as she dove out of sight. She might have made it, too, if her momentum hadn't crashed her into the tall file cabinet." Ok, so no, it's not Pulitzer prize winning, but it's WAY better than the first attempt. (Come on. Admit it.)

I realize this all sounds very easy, but you try it. Add that sort of tension to a page.

.... and then do it 399 more times. (That's the hard part.)

Next time: Backstory!

Happy writing!