Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's all about tension

In class this week we dissected a story by Tobias Wolff in his collection BACK IN THE WORLD. I had not read Wolff before, and if you have not, I suggest you do: he writes some of the most honest, transparent prose I've had the pleasure to read. Simple lines, straight-forward words, yet when you break each sentence down, you get blown away at the mastery. Then, bundle all those sentences up into a paragraph or two, and you get blown away again.

But I digress. For now, at any rate -- we will return to Wolff momentarily.

Let's talk about tension. Tension is what propels us through a story. It is the journey the reader takes to discover whether or not the heroine gets what she desires most. As my instructor said, tension is suspense, and suspense is the space between when the question is asked and when it is answered. I've thought of tension primarily as a function of the story and, to a lesser degree, of character. It also is implicit in our syntax, our word choice, our sentence structure.

At the plot level, we put tension into our story whenever we can. We make our protagonists' lives miserable by throwing insolvable situations in their paths. We create sublot upon subplot to racthet up the interest. We end a scene at a harrowing point that makes us flip the page.

At the character level, we mess with their heads, make them desire that which they cannot have or, at the least, must work very hard to achieve. We provide our creations with yin characteristics that go yang with their lives -- a yearning for order when evicted from a shelter, a desire to be irresponsible when you are a child taking care of a younger sibling and all the grown-ups have abandoned you.

At the cellular level, how the sentence plays on the page also amps up tension. Read the opening paragraphs of COMING ATTRACTIONS, the first story in Wolff's book:

Jean was alone in the theater. She had seen the customers out, locked the doors, and zipped up the night's receipts in the bank deposit bag. Now she was taking a last look around while she waited for her boss to come back and drive her home.

Mr. Munson had left after the first show to go ice skating at the new mall on Buena Vista. He'd been leaving early for almost a month now and at first Jean thought he was committing adultery against his wife, until she saw him on the ice one Saturday afternoon while she was out shoplifting with her girlfriend Kathy. They stopped by the curved window that ran around the rink and watched Mr. Munsen crash into the wall several times. "Fat people shouldn't skate," Kathy said, and they walked on.

When do you sense tension in this excerpt?

For me, on the first read, I felt unease when I got to the phrase "shoplifting with her girlfriend" in the second paragraph. Buried between clauses, at first I thought I'd read this wrong, that she had gone "shopping" with a girlfriend. But no, I read it right, and this tipped me off to the potential irresponsibility of Jean.

But what about the first sentence? Imagine it read "Jean was alone." Tension? Not really. In fact, I would WELCOME some time alone. Add "in the theater", a place normally crowded, and a slight creepiness curls the edges of this sentence. The next two sentences seems routine, but then why is a young girl closing up shop and not her boss? And where is he anyway? Hmmm...

I chuckled to myself when I read the opening of the second paragraph -- a boss, ice skating at a mall instead of tending to his business! And then, this girl who shoplifts uses the formal phrase "committing adultery against his wife" instead of more casual and age-appropriate phrases as "screwing around". This choice adds yet another subtle layer of tension, one of moral ambiguity.

And so on. After two hours of meticulous examination (and hey, we're only half-way through this story), I realized that Wolff's story, seemingly simple, is masterfully complex.

I have so much more to learn. Yippee!!!!!! Peace...


  1. Never heard of Wolff before but now I have "a thing" for him... where's the rest of the darned story?
    (You're so cute when you Yippee!!!!!!)

  2. I have never read Tobias Wolff before. I'll put him on my list. And thanks for the post. It was informative.

  3. I could read tension into being alone if I was so-inclined. Especially in fiction, that can be a dangerous thing. I actually don't read any tension into the Wolff except because, even with adultery and fat people slipping on the rink, nothing lasts. Everything's wrapped up within a sentence or two. The passivity of voice and removal leave some things potentially amusing, but not tense. If anything, those two paragraphs have a strong sense of the inconsequential.

    Luckily, I don't read for tension. I read for a sense of worthwhile usage of my time, whether that means tension, humor, lightness or insight. Inconsequential material can work for me, if it's amusing.

  4. Great post. Do you read the author interviews on the Paris Review? I liked this one Wolff gave.