Posted in General

Building Tension

One of those constantly talked about pieces of writing advice is tension. Make sure your story has tension. Let the tension ebb and flow. Raise the tension. The big question a lot of advice skirts around is where tension comes from, and how you manage it.

In the short term: tension comes from conflict. By definition it’s the stretched force between two opposing forces. It’s not unlike the rope in a tug-of-war game. Two opposing goals are straining to pull each other over.  

Speaking long term, tension is the long-term driving force behind conflict. If there’s no obstacle to your character getting their goal, there’s no tension. However, if you add in obstacles, then there’s more conflict. That additional obstacle creates tension because it stretches out the space between your character deciding on a goal and achieving it.

When starting out on creating tension, take a look at what obstacles your characters have to go through to get to their goals. What could possibly get in their way? This might be another character’s goals, or a particular requirement such as a law or deadline, or even a physical complication such as a locked dor. Obstacles create tension because your character must solve them in order to get to their goal.

If you need to ramp up the tension, add stakes. This is where your conflicts can go from simple to tense. A character who needs to find a piece of paper has a conflict: they’re missing a piece of paper. It’s a conflict, but what happens when you make that paper the last letter they had from their late sister? That’s personal stakes, ones which create more conflict because it’s a moment of their late sister. Need that tension to be even greater? make it the last letter from their late sister which they need to prove her innocent, posthumously.

Tension and conflict often build of each other, so if you’re feeling a section of your story needs more of a driving force behind it, take a look at the tension. Consider if you have enough obstacles to keep your characters busy, and if their stakes are high enough to keep them invested in solving their conflict.

Posted in General, writing

An Overview of Symbolism

There are a lot of powerful tools in literature and writing, and when you’re discussing abstract themes, symbolism is absolutely one of them. If you want the dictionary definition, symbolism is using imagery, comparison and characterization to represent non-concrete themes. While that sums it up nicely however, symbolism goes a little farther than that.

In some cases, symbolism is also used to represent specific elements of a story. It also happens in real-life as well. Here in America, we have state birds, state flowers, and in my home state of Arizona, our capital city uses a particular mythical symbol: that of the phoenix. New Zealand does the same thing with the delightful kiwi bird, adopting ‘kiwi’ as an name for its native and local citizens. If you’re looking for examples of this on the page, look no farther than Game of Thrones, with the dire wolves of House Stark, or the mocking jay from Hunger Games that Katniss Everdeen is both represented by and represents herself. There are thousands of other examples, both real and figurative.

Using symbolism isn’t particularly complicated. Recurrent imagery allows you to lace a piece with a theme or meaning, but it also means that whenever you use that particular image, readers are liable to pick up on that. You’ve probably heard the joke about the teacher describing how the author meant a character was sad and depressed because the curtains in the room were blue. That’s symbolism at work.

Another way symbolism works is through comparison, and frequently in figurative language. Often anger is symbolized by blades, knives or steel. Characters with ‘steely’ gazes are angry, upset or ready to destroy an obstacle. Those with sharp voices are similarly in unpleasant and unhappy moods.

When using symbolism, you need to be aware that regardless of what you use, it is very much influenced by connotations. Doves a symbol of peace, however they are very similar and related to the maligned pigeons who might end up as symbols of city overcrowding and filth.