Friday, June 6, 2014

Stretching the Tension in Writing

To all of my fellow writers out there, how many times have you heard from writing instructors and the like, that you should stretch out the tension point in your writing. How many of you have heard that you can’t give the reader what they want right away. For example, a novice might write a sentence like so:

    The cow jumped over the moon and as it streaked back to earth, landed in the shoot of a meat processing plant.

Whereas an expert would stretch this sentence out more and make the reader wait for the “punch-line” at the end when the cow meets its fate. For example:

    The cow streaked into the air, looking left and right while wearing goggles for eye protection. The cow marveled at its surrounding while the earth grew smaller below its hooves. Birds casually flew through the air and doing a double take at the sight of a cow in their territory. It was such an odd sight that the flying creatures began to circle the cow as it flew through the air. The birds flew until they could fly no longer. The cow ascended further and further, up in and through the earth’s atmosphere until the bovine creature found itself looking down on the moon which was far underneath its rudders and nipples. Terror did not reach the cows eyes until it found itself falling like a rock back down to earth. As the cow neared the earth and what was directly underneath it, the cow began flapping its four legs frantically in an attempt to avoid its eventual fate. Alas, the cow’s desperate act at salvation were unrewarded. The cow plopped down into the shoot of a meat processing plant. Before the grinding blades took the creatures life, the cow had smiled at the thought that it had seem something no other cows could ever imagine.

As you can see, my example runs a little long but I think you get the idea: to build up the tension as much as possible before you give the reader their payoff for continuing to read. The age old adage that I have heard from many a published writer is that, if you show a gun on the dresser in act one, the gun should be fired by act three.
While I do like this rule and understand the meaning behind it, I also try not to overuse it. I guess its like they say: everything in moderation, including moderation. At the same time, while I do utilize this rule, I also feel as though this technique can be utterly frustrating, especially as the reader. Sometimes, with certain writers, it can get to the point where the writer describes every little detail from how the wind feels blowing against the grass to every piece of food on a table, its origins and down to how it was cooked, by who and even what that person was wearing with in depth detail down to the underwear. Okay, I admit that I am exaggerating a bit but you get the idea. The practice of delaying the gratitude in order to squeeze more tension out of a scene and keep a reader on the edge of their seat until they fall off can be overdone. It is possible to fill a scene with so much detail that it bogs down the paragraph or chapter. I feel as though this technique, if overused, can put off a reader and force them to put down your book which is the last thing any writer wants.