Guest Post by Bill Johnson
Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character’s pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.
In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there’s also a price to pay for acting.
Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what’s important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.
Romeo is a great character because he won’t allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.
A novel (or memoir) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there’s no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there’s no tension generated around their actions.
Suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write about this tension in a way that it is transferred from a story’s characters to a story’s audience. That’s why the introduction of a story’s promise around an issue of human need is so important. When a story’s audience identifies with a story’s characters and goals, that audience can also be led to internalize tension over whether a character achieves his or her goals.
While a great plot can help hook an audience around finding out what will happen next, when an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller.
The greater the tension, the more compelling the novel.
This is why keeping a story’s promise off stage can be so lethal. That lack can lead to weak or absent narrative tension.
Generating narrative tension, then, begins with the opening sentences of a novel or story.
Narrative tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story. The weaker the current, the less a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the involvement of an audience.
A transparent example of narrative tension is Harry Potter. Harry’s issue is fitting in, but the author places him in an environment he can never fit in, the Dursley’s (who also want to fit in by appearing normal, and Harry is a threat to that). When Harry goes to Hogwarts, he finds himself representing a conflict between pure blood and mixed blood (who fits in). And any action he takes at Hogwarts puts him at risk of being expelled and sent back to the Dursleys.
Once Harry’s narrative tension is internalized by the story’s audience, that audience has to read to the end of a novel to see how Harry’s tension is released, which also releases that internalized tension for the audience. It’s a powerful experience.
If you can create a novel with a main character in a deep state of narrative tension, you’re on your way to creating a compelling story.
Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a workbook that explores how to create dramatic, engaging stories, available on Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace (mybook.to/storyispromise ). He’s web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, a site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays storyispromise.com. Bill speaks about the issue of narrative tension on this video he created for a Pennwriters online workshop.