On sustaining tension in writing

If you have spent any time talking to me about writing, original fiction on the internet or slash, then I have probably mentioned Captive Prince. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that the author C. S. Pacat had done a lengthy guest post… on tension.

As a bit of background, the summary for Captive Prince:

Damen is the true heir to the throne, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of a rival nation as a pleasure slave.

And my gushing:

This was the first original fantasy novel I ever read online, and it remains one of the best, and one of my favourites. The writing is rock solid technically, and the characterisation is incredibly sophisticated: in particular, the characterisation of Laurent through Damen’s eyes is absolutely brilliant. […] The story evolves into a complex political fantasy as Damen navigates the labyrinthine Veretian politics. The romance is exquisite, with some of the best-realised sexual tension I have ever read.

So, what does this master of tension say? The challenge is to both create and sustain tension.

The Getting of Tension

Tension, be it narrative, romantic, violent, etc, exists between two opposing forces. The forces can be between two characters, within one character or between a character and the barriers to a goal they want. The challenge is to establish that tension in a realistic way and then sustain it.

Sustaining the tension is where it gets complicated. According to C. S. Pacat, there are three things that let all the tension out of a scene: collapsing one of the opposing forces, catharsis, or repetition. The first one is obvious, I think. If the character caves or the barrier collapses, the tension is gone.

The second and third are more interesting. Particularly writing romance, one does struggle with this. The endgame of short-form romance is essentially the splishy-splashy form of catharsis. Assuming the characters don’t jump into bed straight away (risky from a tension standpoint), a healthy relationship has certain markers on the way to the happy ending–and one risks taking quite a quantitative approach to positioning the first kiss, the first time they talk about that crazy little thing called love, the first night together, etc in the story. Because as C. S. Pacat says, once they’ve kissed, you don’t get any pay-off from a second kiss. In fact, you risk reducing the tension. Every step forward has to up the stakes. But if the stakes go too high too early, it becomes a tension arms race. Escalate too soon and you’ve got all-out nuclear war in chapter four and scorched earth for the rest of the story.

What is the solution? I think it’s to escalate slowly. Put realistic, plausible barriers in the way of the first kiss, or even the acknowledgement of romantic potential. But remember that if they keep rehashing the same argument it starts to lose its effect can undermine the tension. Hold something back even when you do move the tension forward–make the readerexcruciatingly aware that they might be getting something, but that the endgame will be so much more amazing. I think this comes out in what isn’t thought, isn’t said, and isn’t done by the characters, but that their actions nonetheless make clear to the reader (so–simple).

If there’s one thing Captive Prince has taught me, it’s that if you’re a good writer, you can withhold any kind of satisfaction from the reader for a good 150,000 words and they will just become more and more desperate. And while the romantic tension was basically all I could think about, C. S. Pacat was keeping what is arguably a much bigger point of tension going in the background. With perfect timing, one source of tension switches out for the other, and all I can say is… my sanity hangs on Book 3. I could probably write an entire post deconstructing why I think pacing, plotting and tension work so well inCaptive Prince, but it would become embarrassingly gushy, and I’ve probably done enough of that.

All I can really say is go, read the post on tension, read Captive Prince (note the warnings, though), and see for yourself.

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