Tension is the gasoline of the fiction engine. It powers everything. It keeps readers turning pages. The release of tension provides that quintessential feeling of payoff in peak dramatic moments.
On the other hand, it’s not a feeling we crave. As humans, one of our prime motivations is to avoid stress. We mutter about the BMW driver who cuts us off in traffic but we don’t ram into him and pull out a baseball bat – or, as the officer told me, we’re not supposed to. And if we do something aggressive like flip the bird we feel really uncomfortable when we then have to stop next to him at the light even though he was in the wrong.
This disdain for tension can lead to one of the biggest problems with ineffective fiction: The Indian Jones effect.
Famously, Raiders of the Lost Ark was built around the structure of the old movie serials, short features that would show one “chapter” of a story every week or so before the feature film rolled. These shorts were forced into a three step approach in order to move along their overarching storyline:
1. Encounter a threat.
2. Be almost defeated by the threat.
3. Overcome the threat through sheer cunning or terrible writing. See Commando Cody for many examples of the latter technique.
If Lucas and Spielberg had employed this structure exclusively, the movie would have been awful. To be sure, Raiders is a series of episodic encounters where the tension is raised and then released in small chunks, but those episodes are just chapters in a larger story: The race to get the Ark away from the Nazis. And also the love story between Indy and Marion.
Ineffective fiction suffers from two common errors that prematurely let the tension out of their stories: The Immaculate Protagonist and the aforementioned Indian Jones Effect.
Think about Indy for a moment. Did that guy do anything right? Was he “more than a match” for anyone he encountered? Obviously, the swordsman he shot would argue that he was outclassed, but in every other instance Indy seems to win out through sheer, insanely indefatigable determination. Marion has so much faith that he will save her that she works out a plan to save herself.
The same is true of John McLane in Die Hard. Do the cops ever come to trust him to handle the situation? Do the FBI agents begrudgingly admire him? No, and they shouldn’t. He’s a wild card. A loose cannon. One of the things that made that movie such a breakout hit was that even the audience didn’t think he was up to it. He spent most of the movie either screwing up or just plain being terrified.
But the main character in ineffective thrillers is too often someone like Rod Chiseljaw, a man of too many talents, infinite skills and special knowledge that puts him in charge of a group of highly trained professionals. If the author even bothers to address the oddness of this amateur leading a team of special forces soldiers, it happens in one quick confrontation:
“Who are you tell me what to do? I’ve got ten years under my belt as a Navy Seal and you’re, what, a miner?”
“I’m a diamond miner, dammit,” Rod says, “and I’m the only one who knows where the terrorists are hiding in that diamond mine.”
Usually, this will do the trick but sometimes there’s a physical altercation in which Rod beats down the guy most critical of him. After that everyone accepts his leadership and they all become manly friends.
But think about what opportunities were wasted here. Most obviously, the chance to have ongoing tension among the men going to face the terrorists. The soldiers don’t like being led by a civilian. What about their distrust of his motivation? Maybe they suspect he only wants into that diamond because it’s, you know, filled with diamonds.
We could have a long running source of tension that could then be paid off when Rod actually comes through and maybe saves their lives or kills the main terrorist at the end of the novel. But, nope, we’re into the tension and out again like tiptoeing through a baby pool.
Another thing about Rod is his decisions, while unconventional, always pay off and the men following him learn to trust his instincts. Again, think about what is wasted here. Suppose Rod screws up the first time out and now faces resistance from the special forces soldiers at every turn. In this case, he has to gradually gain their trust which allows the story to gradually release that tension. It also puts the reader in a place where even they don’t know if he’s going to screw up again.
The same is true for the conflicts in these books. There is no sense of a war, just a series of disembodied battles. Characters tend to pop up when needed and then get killed. Critics are permanently silenced (Major General: I now understand that you are the perfect man for this job, Rod) either by coming to acknowledge Rod’s unblemished perfection or, more often, by straight up getting killed. Whatever the reason, that source of tension, like all the others, is very quickly whisked away.
It’s important to remember that, as much as you don’t care for tension personally, it is critical to your story. If you find you’ve let the air out too soon or too quickly, step back and see if you can’t move that down the line a bit. Think of yourself not as someone who gets rid of tension but rather someone who cultivates and curates it.