Tension on Every Page? — by Tosh McIntosh

Some of the most frequently offered comments in Roundtable critique sessions repeat the advice contained in well-respected reference books on fiction writing. Unless you believe nothing worthwhile can be learned from reading about how to do it, that’s one of the benefits of participation in NIP.

But there’s a downside to this approach, most often represented by considering the advice to be inviolate. The title of this post refers to one such rule, which I submit can lend itself to misinterpretation by not considering the broader context as presented in the list of 31 structural elements of fiction contained in our critique guide, available for download from the Files section of our Yahoo group.

In my personal blog post titled “Color Coded Text Time” I present a concept for evaluating any text in a manuscript in terms of the time it takes to read it relative to its contribution to each of the structural elements. The benefit to this approach is that it enhances a writer’s ability to weave a story tapestry as opposed to concentrating on a few pieces of the puzzle at the expense of all the others. Here’s a case in point from my current novel Test Flight, third in the Pilot Error series.

I write aviation mystery/techno-thrillers. Without getting sidetracked by the muddled definition of a thriller in today’s marketplace, for the purposes of this post I’ll concentrate on the mystery and techno elements of this series contained in the following story question: How would a killer commit airborne murder by sabotaging an airplane and make it appear that pilot error is the primary cause? I also write in limited-multiple point-of-view, which defines the reader’s experience not as a who-done-it, but as a how-done-it and a how-catch-em.

These decisions with regard to story strategy are reflected in the requirement to include relatively large amounts of investigative detail as the hero goes about unraveling the mystery. And because I don’t want to unnecessarily limit my potential audience, I have to tackle the challenge of presenting technological information sufficient to satisfy readers with aviation experience, but without driving away those who have never flown an airplane.

To achieve all these objectives, I can’t use the guideline-become-rule of including tension on every page as an inviolate principle. But what I can do is follow a far more inclusive structural strategy that concentrates on what really matters, and ensure that the majority of the text time remains close to the spine of the story.

This is not a character versus plot issue, because character and plot are two sides of the same coin, and both are best served by creating characters who are driven by internal and external forces to accomplish individual goals. If I use the overriding principle of creating characters who can do the heavy lifting and carry the story on their backs, in my opinion this will provide the best potential for writing the novels I want and satisfying my intended audience.


Tension on Every Page? — by Tosh McIntosh — 2 Comments

  1. I still work to achieve tension on every page. I know there’s tension, but the reader doesn’t because he is not in the head of my character and I am not sophisticated enough in writing to get that across. Critique Sundays help me to see that. I wonder if I will ever “get it.”

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