Staying Tense in the Best Way Possible: Lessons from Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk was a recent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and I can’t help but stop and listen to him speak when he talks about his craft. Palahniuk is an explosion of a writer, and so deeply considerate of creative process that he’s considered almost every facet of it. After listening to the podcast conversation, it high was time to revisit his 2020 gem, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different.
If you need to excite your writer brain, I suggest picking up Consider This and flipping to almost any section; it’s all writer porn. The book is chock-full of great passages that aren’t in many books on process. You'll find subsections like “submerging the I,” or “how do you get to impossible?” I opened to his section on creating tension in your story, and was immediately sucked in. My work suddenly felt very seen.
In less than one paragraph, Chuck P. made me realize that the reason I struggle to incorporate great tension into my writing is because I loathe tension in my life. And sitting with tension, especially the unresolved kind that takes a while to write (aka a novel), is hard.
That made me wonder: in this current day and age, is writing tension becoming harder for authors? We’re faced with so much of it in our lives, and arguably more so now than ever before. We can’t turn on the television, open social media apps, read a work email, or even walk into the grocery store without being confronted with some new stressor. I want to yoga and meditate the shit out of every day, but I can’t find a damn minute.
It is in this stressed out, end of the year shit-storm of a 10-more-shopping-days-left spirit that I thought a blog post on writing tension might be… helpful. I wanted to say pleasant there, but heck if that’s not the best word. And who better to lean on for tension-writing advice than the “carrot tension master” himself, Mr. Palahniuk.
“The longer you can be with the unresolved thing, the more beautifully it will resolve itself.” - Tom Spanbauer, speaking about an unfinished written draft
Palahniuk tells us that we need a few key items to create tension.
1. Plan horizontal and vertical plot points: horizontal plot points tell the story as it goes along. Its the sequence of events that move the story, or the order of events, which carry tension forward. Vertical plot points gradually heighten the character’s response to tension over the course of the story, via the ramping of emotional, physical and psychological reactors.
2. Identify both your clock and your gun. You’ve got Chekhov’s gun, or the dramatic principle that the details within the story will contribute to the overall narrative, and the proverbial clock. The clock in question is anything that limits a story by forcing it to end at a predetermined time. The clock can be something that marks the passage of time, or measures time, but in any case, the reader’s attention is drawn to time. The gun is drawn at a particular moment to bring the story to climax.
In addition to these and a few other hints, Palahniuk briefly mentions the method in which children tell stories as a means of adding tension, and as the parent of a 6-year old, I can confirm he’s correct. Childrens' stories are musical, cascading, continuous, and building. They sound like this: “and, and, and, and, and…” but have a song-like quality. They usually involve one (plastic toy) smoking gun and are time-boxed. No comment on the fact that the storyteller usually has to work on the quality of the punchline.
This little-person example led me to think about music, and how songs seem to naturally follow the principles of tension writing. Songs repeat key phrases just like children do, songs are mostly held to the 3-ish minute standard, and ultimately they'll hit a certain climax. In the middle of it all, songs tell a story through verse. It’s poetry set to music, with the rhythm keeping the horizontal flow and the pitch adjusting the vertical. If you want a brief masterclass in tension, put on a favorite album. Or, find my six year old during a hectic dinner period when he wants to tell you about what happened at lunch. YOU MUST LISTEN.
Consider This shares some great quotes about writing for tension. You'll find Ursula K. Le Guin: “Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one.” Chuck Palahniuk: “No thesis statements. Imagine a stripper walking out onstage, shucking his or her pants and saying, ‘This is my junk. Any questions?’” And Joy Williams: “You don’t write to make friends.”
In summary, don't just dump your junk out onto the paper and be like, "this is my junk, any questions?" Raise the stakes for the story and characters, and make the process teasingly, delightfully gradual.
This holiday season, may all your tenses be consistent, and may all your writing be tense.
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