Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tension in Books



My best friend has her Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.  Let me tell you, that’s a lot of class hours spent on how to write!  And according to her, every single professor she had talked at length about the importance of “tension” in a story.  She said they all emphasized the importance of something in the story to “make the reader want to turn the page.”  SO, here’s my question (and one she can’t remember ever discussing in school) – is there such a thing as TOO much tension?


My answer would be ABSOLUTELY!  But the thing is that I think that level is different for each person.  Let’s look at movies first.  Some people absolutely love suspenseful movies (I used to be one of them).  In general the movie industry draws in literally BILLIONS of dollars each year and according to http://www.the-numbers.com/market/ over the last 20 years 14 of the top movies are something “action packed.”  I’ll give you that Men in Black and The Sixth Sense (which I consider the scariest movie I’ve ever seen) are at completely different levels of suspense, but they still both keep you on the edge of your seat and obviously people love that.   

So moving on to books… I do agree there has to be some sort of tension to keep you interested – even Pride and Prejudice has an element of tension (Will Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy ever see each other again?  Has her rejection of him ruined all chances of a happy ending?) but that is NOTHING in comparison to say a John Grisham mystery or a Michael Crichton sci-fi.  So how are both ideas so widely accepted as phenomenal writing?  Because there are both kinds of people in the world!

There are so many people who love to be scared by what they are reading (walk through any airport and note the number of books by the above authors being read at any given moment), but then there are many like me, who just can’t take it for too long.  For example… I was recently reading Wicked Hunger.  I first noticed it because of the sub-title “Someone Wicked This Way Comes” and loving the play on Shakespeare bought it.  Let’s just be up front and admit I didn’t finish it.  It was too stressful to read!  Not because it wasn’t well written (I think poorly done it would not have upset me nearly as much), the problem was that you could relate to the characters SO well and yet they were constantly fighting this insane urge to hurt people.  SO MUCH TENSION!  I did like the premise… it almost reminded me of Midnight Sun because it is written from the predator’s POV (only without Vampires).  And like I said, well written because you really sympathize with and feel the struggle of the characters… but I just couldn’t take the stress level and eventually stopped and did what I naturally do in that situation—picked up Jane Austen again.

Now, if you LIKE tons of suspense, then I would definitely recommend Wicked Hunger or The Mind Readers (reviewed {HERE})  In fact most of the stories I write about have a great deal more suspense or tension than Pride and Prejudice, but there is a line for me and when I find I’m not having fun reading because it’s causing instead of releasing stress… well, then it’s time to find another book!

So where is your line?  Do you think the line changes at different times in your life? 

1 comment:

  1. This is such a fresh idea! Thank you for putting into words the reason why I can't watch horror movies or read Stephen King.

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