Monday, July 7, 2008

Those Dicta: Tension (first in an occasional series)

Bill Brohaugh once declared that the only reliable rule in writing is "Never start a sentence with a comma."

So far I haven't had cause to question that one. You also probably shouldn't start with periods, colons, or semicolons, either.

[Warning--pointless digression contained in these brackets. In Spanish, of course, you can start a sentence with a question mark (upside down), which has always looked to me as if the writer wasn't merely asking a question but was vastly, urgently confused, and perhaps a touch overwrought:

¿What was that?

¡Spanish can also start with an upside-down exclamation point!

And, although it seems unlikely, when you have a question that is also an exclamation of surprise, you are supposed to use the inverted bang at the front and a question mark at the end:

¡Why on earth am I writing all this?

In English, of course, if you're James Joyce or Alan Paton writing dialogue, you can even start with an em-dash. But commas, periods, colons, and semi-colons make a poor start to a sentence, and that's an iron-clad rule.]

My problem with rules about writing is that they generate in my writerly ego an overweening desire to break them, just to show it can be done successfully. "Never open a story with a dream." Ha. Done that, and the book will be published next year. "Never have a villain whose only motivation is that he's 'evil'." Done that, too, and he's my favorite villain. (He's a god who feeds on anguish. It's his niche in the metaphysical ecosystem. It's not a bwah-ha-ha-ha sort of thing. It's science.)

I know this attitude of breaking things becasue they're there is contrary and childish. I have my own rules (I don't put adverbs in dialogue tags, for example), but they are part of my little personal code of conduct, not something I assume to be universal. And whenever I'm exhorted to follow some precept as a necessary key to readable writing, I dig in my heels.

Here's one I've heard a lot lately: Tension on every page. (Lit agent Donald Maass--a very good agent--is usually credited.)

Do we really need tension on every page? I don't think so. I can point to many pages in many great novels that I would say are totally devoid of tension. And while writing I certainly don't stop every hundred words and ask myself is there something I can do to ensure there is tension on this page?

Of course, one of the things you quickly discover is that the adherents of such rules tend to engage in redefinition. Show them a passage where the author has clearly succeeded in maintaining the reader's interest despite the fact that it's a scene intended to show that the characters have arrived at a moment of safety and comfort, and they will reply--ah, but that's the calm-before-the-storm, a classic kind of tension. Show them a funny scene, a tender scene, a lyrical scene, and they'll find tension in there somewhere. Basically, in their view, Interest = Tension. It's like arguing with a religious fanatic--everything that agrees with them proves their point, and so does everything that contradicts them.

This redefinitionist tendency results in some pretty silly situations. I've seen people assert that all first-person narrators are the protagonists of their novels, and then watched them try to wriggle their way through to demonstrate their theory, rather than simply conceding that their idea was a little flaky. (I don't know how the hell they try to prove that Watson is the protagonist of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I'd like to watch them weasel through that one.) But that's another complaint, and I shouldn't get distrracted from my current diatribe.

Why do I care about this tension contention? Partly just that childish streak, and partly because I've seen too much amateur writing lately that is clearly striving to put tension on every page, and it gets damned annoying to read.

Novelist and teacher Raymond Obstfeld sets a goal I find more reasonable--a gem on every page. Might be tension, might be language, might be a perfect line of dialogue, might be just about anything that makes the reader glad they read that page. Make every page sell itself.

Now there's a rule I can endorse (if not always succeed in obeying).


Janet said...

A gem on every page. I like that too. I've twisted myself into a knot or two with the "tension on every page" mantra and had finally redefined it as "tension on almost every page". I think I'll just replace it with Obstfeld's version.

Tim Stretton said...

I think "a gem on every page" is magnificent.

The tension one is so imprecise as to be valueless, and if imperfectly understood tends to the kind of one-paced formulaic "thriller" which is rarely anything of the sort...

Tim Stretton said...

I'd never heard of Raymond Obstfeld, so I looked him up.

He's the Rancho Mirage man, right? So you were on his retreat in June... he certainly has an impressive publication history!

Alis said...

A gem on every page - love it. Now we just need to make sure that these gems are completely different from the darlings that we are meant to kill... Ho hum, for an eye (ear?) which could tell infallibly what's a gem...

Alis said...

Emma Darwin had a great post about rhythms in novels (and other works of art) recently which is indirectly about tension. It's at

Tim Stretton said...

One of the "rules" I'm always most sceptical about is the whole "murder your darlings" thing. Just because a turn of phrase is felicitous doesn't make it self-indulgent.

I'd always err on the side of leaving it in. Let the editor murder your darlings if a slaying really is necessary!

Alis said...

I'd agree, except that the problem with my darlings tends to be that they're not so much turns of phrase as whole scenes!

Anonymous said...

, looks up from my corpse and her ees are streaming with elipses. ".! You bastard! How could you?!" She launches herself at . then. Moonwhite fingernails digging for his I's. But the cops on scene catch her and pull her back.

Get him! I try to scream, but my corpse refuses to even shudder. Tear his I's out and eat them the way Father ! taught us.

I imagine him dying the way I have died, torn page by page. Lonley white leaves on a rainsoaked street.

Sorry, I have that same rebellious impulse.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, the "tension on every page" dictum takes a toll on the writer.

Not to mention what it does to the poor reader...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yep, Raymond's the guy who runs the Rancho Mirage Retreat, now in its twenty-somethingth year. He's written so many things in so many genres you can't even track them all. (His advice: "Don't use my career as a model.")

You're right--"tension" is usually interpreted as "breathless thriller writing," and it's not a pretty thing.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yeah, how do you know a gem when you see it? But, of course, that sort of question runs through every aspect of the writing process.

I always read Emma's posts, and you're right--tension is really a product of other factors including rhythm and pacing (and stakes, and so on). Which I suppose is one of the reasons it is silly to look for it on every page--it isn't created de novo on a page.

As to murdering ones darlings--I generally don't. I think you have to be willing to kill them off in service of the book, but I don't execute them simply because I love them.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--


Now write the rest of the story!

Jen Ster said...

And here I've been wasting my time with "no more than one -ly word to a page" when I shoulda just been cramming gems in there. Page one, ruby. Page two, emerald. Page three--does quartz count?

Anonymous said...

!A gem on every page?
Think of that as Spanish. But it is beautiful, no matter what the language.
Back to editing my novel.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Oh, sure! The semiprecious gems are often prettier than the Big Three anyhow. (Diamonds are mainly DeBeers marketing hype anyhow.)

Tsavorite garnet is as nice a green as any emerald, and usually more flawless. (Only problem is that they aren't as hard as they ought to be.) I'm a big fan of bloodstones and watermelon tourmaline.

lorrie porter said...

Could we have a pearl on every page, because then even something which starts off as a bit of grit can be cultured into a thing worth reading. Gems are trickey, what you think may be a diamond could turn out to be a bit of cut glass.

Jen Ster said...

Lorrie has a point. And a pearl. I worked for a lawyer once who had a jeweler as a client, and the guy brought by some pearls one day for some reason I've since forgotten. I saw them on his desk and asked if that meant he was a man of great price, or just a constant irritant. I have another job now.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Lorrie--

Yeah, pearls actually have more literary clout than gemstones as a whole.

One of my favorite Dorothy Parker quips was when a woman held a door open for Dorothy and said, "Age before beauty..."

Dorothy replied, "Yes. And pearls before swine."

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

I would have gone with Man of Great Price, but obviously he had no sense of humor...

Anonymous said...

David: Your advice is dead on, and all writers should pay heed. Creative rule-breaking can make for some dazzling writing. And writers should heed Raymond Obstfeld's advice, too. Raymond wrote a few articles for me when I edited Writer's Digest years ago.

I don't think you have to pay heed to my bit of advice quoted at the beginning of your post, though. I discovered while writing Everything You Know About English Is Wrong that beginning sentences with commas is not only acceptable, it is common. For those of you interested in an example, this very sentence begins with a comma--and that comma is the phrase "For those of you interested in an example." The first use of the word comma in English was a borrowing from Latin and Greek. A comma was a short phrase, not quite a sentence. (In fact, the OED gives as the definition of Greek comma “a piece cut off,” which might make a good model for people looking to tighten their prose.) The word comma in this definition, tracing back to ancient literature and in use in English by the 1500s, was subsequently transferred to the punctuation symbol that set off the short phrase, the piece cut off.

This language never ceases to surprise and fascinate me.