This is a bit of an abstract concept though it sounds super simple in its description. It’s no surprise that tension is a critical component for any compelling narrative. Without a tangible sense of suspense throughout a story, the drama feels hollow as nothing feels like a big deal within the narrative. But sometimes it can be difficult for writers to create that sense of tension that keeps their audience engaged in the story. Something that’s become more prevalent in rushed stories, or in stories that aren’t well thought out, is that seemingly random turn of events occur to create tension that isn’t really earned within the story. One way to view it is writer’s ignoring character development and/or world building to create an artificial tension to keep the audience engaged.
Tension that fits within a narrative typically requires that it aligns with the development of the characters involved as well as the worldbuilding elements that have been established. In this sense it then stands up to scrutiny when analyzed and thought about by the reader. Not only does it stand up to scrutiny, it serves to move the story further along in a cohesive and meaningful way. Yumeko and Tatsumi from The Shadow of The Fox trilogy by Julie Kagawa serve as an excellent example of several different types of narrative tension that develops organically throughout the series. The way the two characters grow both together and in their own ways weaves between moments of breaking and creating tension in a fluid manner that is consistent with the way they’ve been presented and their world has been constructed.
(Still my favorite book series, highly recommend reading it if you haven’t!)
When tension is created by breaking character development and/or elements of established worldbuilding, it’s very easy for the readers or the audience to feel cheated as the story’s forced down a narrative path that makes no sense. It creates out-of-character moments or breaks the established rules of the world to simply create dramatic tension that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. It may allow for a moment of intensity, but it sacrifices the integrity of the overall story. One only needs to look at the final few seasons of Game of Thrones the TV series to understand just how horribly these kinds of narrative decisions can ruin the good favor a story has with its audience.
Spoiler Warning: Harley Merlin #7 – Harley Merlin and the Detector Fix
But recently I’ve encountered something quite strange that is new to me. Harley Merlin and the Detector Fix had a very strange choice of narrative flow that seemed to obliterate the tension within the book. There are two concurrent plot lines taking place, one centered in Harley’s point of view and the other in Jacob’s point of view. While both start out well, the middle portion (or majority of their plot lines I suppose) really seem to lose whatever tension had been built up for what feels like superficial drama.
In Harley’s point of view story, Wade becomes (or has always been?) cursed and suddenly his emotions are reversed. Love becomes hate, happiness becomes despair, etc. It creates a moment of conflict closer to the climax of that story which also felt like it lacked much else in terms of tension or suspense. Afterwards it’s discovered that this curse was placed upon the necklace Harley’s wearing and, when it’s destroyed, Wade goes back to his normal loving self. This felt like an example of artificial drama to create a feeling of tension by forcing a character to act out of character yet created a reason for it that loosely fits within the worldbuilding rules. The Harley Merlin series has a rather soft magic system where seemingly anything is possible so it’s not too farfetched, yet it brings up so many questions. The main one being why did the curse only take place now and what triggered it? The readers know roughly when Harley had gotten the pendent but not so much as to why all of this only happened now. There were plenty of moments to trigger it that would have been far more inconvenient (and dangerous) for Harley. Upon review it really feels like a throwaway plot point to add some tension to a mission that had little to begin with.
The other plot line is from Jacob’s point of view that seemingly had random intervals of tense moments that could have been their own dedicated plot lines with how important they actually are. While there is some incredible drama going on with Jacob’s plot line, it’s really only evident after the reader finishes reading the novel. It’s not that it’s a terrible idea, it’s more that the execution felt off as it left a large chunk of his point of view story feeling rather mundane and boring. It was moreso a large chunk of exposition that was then turned into intense action right at the end for a seemingly strange and predictable reveal. In the moment it feels impactful and great but when thinking back on it, it brings up far more questions and confusion.
The seventh book in the Harley Merlin series serves as a great example as to why tension is important to consider when planning out a story. What is causing the drama in the story? What are the moments of tension and how does it relate to character development, worldbuilding, and plot progression both in this book and in the overall series? Throwing in intense moments of dramatic tension provides short term excitement but then feels meaningless or superficial when the audience reflects on the story and what it means.