As a member of PENRWA (http://penrwa.blogspot.com/), the Kitsap Peninsula chapter of the Romance Writers of America, I participate in an email group. This morning Susan Lyons (http://www.susanlyons.ca) shared a link to a helpful article called Talking Back to Your Brain. (http://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/talking-back-to-your-brain/)
After a short lecture on the structure of the human brain, the authors pointed out that we often sabotage ourselves by asking our brains the wrong sort of questions, such as a question which is framed so as to generate depressing answers, or a question so vague that the answers are meaningless, or a question so big that the very volume of answers tends to immobilize us or create despair. This sort of thing is far from helpful to a writer—or indeed anyone—who is already feeling stuck. Instead, the authors recommended, ask yourself very specific questions, with a sharp and limited focus. They then gave examples of such questions, and one leapt out at me:
“How can I put more tension in this scene?”
The reason that one grabbed me, I think, is that it’s a question of craft. Sufficient tension to carry the story along—and the readers with it—does not just happen, it seems, except perhaps to the most gifted writers, and so it has to be put in, like adding seasoning to a sauce.
Writers talk, and some of them talk quite a lot, about the craft of writing. For most of my life, until I began working seriously on my writing, I was idealistic, not to say naïve. With an absolute belief in the power of Sincerity and the holiness of Art, I disdained the use of tricks. I just wanted to tell a true story—a story that, although it might be fiction, conveyed some truth about life as I knew it. Of course I believed in developing skills and honing them by practice, but I was not sure exactly what was meant by “craft.” The concept aroused mixed feelings in me, as mixed as the meanings of the word: craft as skill; craft as technique; craft as trickery.
Craft as skill: Nothing is sweeter than those times when the work is going right, when honest workmanship and joyous play become one. That sense of ease comes partly by serendipity but more importantly from a well-practiced set of skills, like having a set of clean and shining tools lying ready to hand.
Craft as technique: It’s still about skill, but now it’s skill employed in shaping tried and true patterns, which may or may not have much heart in them. Technique may be a display of skill for its own sake, or just for the sake of making a buck. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily; it can still be honest workmanship. Many popular authors owe their success to their mastery of technique combined with timeliness: a clear sense of what kind of story the public want at the moment.
Craft as trickery: When technique becomes a substitute for story, when formulas replace characters, I as a reader feel cheated. As a voracious and omnivorous reader, I have often been beguiled into entering a book by trickery, manipulated while it lasted into thinking it was an exciting story peopled with intriguing characters, but in the end left unsatisfied, even slightly queasy, as though I’d just eaten something pretending to be a good meal but in truth consisting entirely of air, genetically modified soy solids, hydrogenated fat and artificial flavors. That’s not the kind of story I want to read, and it’s not the kind I want to write.
So, back to that hypothetical scene without enough tension in it. It needs something. But if the characters are to remain true at heart, however wildly exotic the fiction they inhabit, then to my mind, the tension cannot legitimately be ratcheted up by merely employing clever plot devices. The writer must first understand that more tension must be shown—and that is a matter of the best sort of craft, that understanding—and then find genuine sources of tension in the characters and their situation as they already exist in their author’s mind.
Even if a book is a lightweight piece of genre fiction, it can still be made of honest ingredients.