Tension is a term introduced by Allen Tate, meaning the integral unity that results from the successful resolution of the conflicts of abstraction and concreteness, of general and particular, of denotation and connotation. The term results from removing the prefixes from two teams in logic: intentions, which refers to the abstract attributes of objects that can properly be named by a word; and extension, which refers to the specific object named by the word. (A Handbook to Literature)
In the above scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blond’s intentions are made early in the scene. He intends to torture the cop, which creates a great deal of tension; however, the greatest tension comes in the not knowing how he intends to torture the cop. Mr. Blond’s voice and mannerisms are a mix of masochism with a laid back and joking sort of demeanor as if he’s bantering with a bunch of buddies. When the music begins—an upbeat “Stuck in the Middle with You”—the climactic tension of the scene is felt not only by the cop who awaits certain pain, but also the viewer as we await the cop’s horrid ordeal. We are rooting for the cop and hoping someone will bust into the warehouse and save him. And yet, as we are rooting for the cop, Mr. Blond’s charismatic character has intrigued us. Like a highway accident, we both abhor the scene to come, and yet, cannot look away. Through effective narrative tension, dichotic character traits in Mr. Blond, and disharmony between character intention and setting, the scene makes us accomplices in this violence. We should look away, but we are completely held in this tension. This is not so unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s opening chapter of Lolita in the below except, where he introduces us to his narrator protagonist, Humbert Humbert, a confessed pedophile.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns…. (Lolita)
Tension Writing Exercise
Choose a scene from a work you’ve already written that includes a spoken tension and dialogue between two characters. Copy it and place it in its own document. For this exercise, you are going to focus purely on this scene as if it is its own work. Let the details go where they need to go for the sake of the scene regardless of the longer narrative. Now, we’re going to deconstruct it and rewrite it:
- Choose the main character of the scene. This might be an antagonist or secondary character. It should be the character who undergoes the most change within the scene. Now, study the character’s dialogue exclusively. Literally highlight only this characters gestures, dialogue, etc. Take 50% of the dialogue and rewrite it as action and gesture. You CANNOT use dialogue tags—i.e., said, yelled, etc—OR adverbs—”ly” words and action modifiers.
- Now, complete the same exercise for your secondary character within the scene.
- Next, study your setting. Highlight sections and phrases that focus on place, setting and atmosphere. Forget about the longer narrative, focus only on this setting in this scene. Is the setting in harmony or discord with the main character’s intentions and attributes? How might you further explore the setting so that it further intensifies the tension?
- Finally, weave the deconstructed scene and weave it back together with a focus on tension. Notice both the positive and negative spaces within the scene and how what is NOT stated is as important as what IS stated.
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