Friday, March 4, 2011

Tension Tells the Tale

Several weeks ago, I read Jennieke Cohen's piece "Dynamic Duos" on the New Kids on the Writer's Block blog, and it's been rattling around in the back of my head ever since. To summarize, Cohen pointed out that there is always tension between the protagonist pair. In ever novel or movie, the two main people (usually the two people destined to fall in love) experience a perpetual frisson. This frisson can morph, grow or shrink, but it remains until the end of the story. Without tension, of course, there is no story.

I read her article, and my knee-jerk response was that she was wrong.
The novels I loved the best, those with the most intense love stories, didn't have a couple pitted against each other. They had couples that worked together toward common goals.

Isn't memory a crafty thing? Especially one like mine, which likes remembering the good more than the bad. The great love stories of Jacqueline Carey, Karen Marie Moning, William Goldman—every one of them was exactly the same as Cohen said: There was tension between the protagonists throughout the entire novel/series until the very end, when everything gets resolved and there's the moment of happily ever after.

That couldn't be right. I mean, with romance novels, this made sense. Without the tension between the lead woman and man, what would be the point? Even my beloved Jayne Ann Krentz novels, where the lovers work together to solve another mystery, the characters still maintained a tension between them—a secret one couldn't share with the other, a trust issue that needs time and experience to be dissolved, a guilt of expectations holding one or the other back from fully committing themselves. Until the third act, this tension rides the story, steers it, cuts short those happy moments and pushes the characters back into action.

Fine. Romance I will allow needs this device. But what of fantasy? In fantasy, there's an outer villain that needs conquering. Two people who love each other can battle side by side against this foe. Can't they? I sifted through my favorite novels. Carey, Harrison, Jordan, Collins. The external foe is there, the quest is laid out before the main character, but the tension between the protagonists remains a driving force in them all, especially in those that I remember so fondly as binding tales of love. The happily ever after tricked my memory, the fantasy I created for these characters after the novel ended was as strong in my mind as all the struggles they overcame in the novels.

Since these last two weeks, while I've cared for my cat recovering from surgery and been too distracted to settle into writing, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this tension between the protagonists. The way it can change, the way it can shape the characters. My instinct is to make things happy for my main characters, the ones I come to care about. Like good friends or my own relationship, I want to soothe out the bumps, make the trials less strenuous. But I know that it's not going to do them any good to give them the kind of life I'm happy living. No one is going to write novels about my life, lived peacefully, quietly, with the man I love and (thankfully) no great strife. No one would want to read that novel. But they'd want to read about two people finding love against insurmountable odds while in the midst of saving the world.

Thank you, Jennieke Cohen, for reminding me that first and foremost, I must torture my characters. I'll begin writing again this week on Faye if all things go well (and I fully expect them to), and that perpetual writer's question will be at the forefront of my mind as I type: How can I make it worse? Specifically: How can I make the relationship between Faye and Blake (the male protagonist) harder?

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