Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Can a crime novel have too much tension?

by Rick Blechta

As seems to happen more often than not, a previous post from one of my Type M confreres causes my well-made plans to change at the last minute. That’s happened again today — and is the reason I’m so late with my own post.

Yesterday, Tom posted a great piece on successfully building tension and stress into a plot. It is something every single crime fiction writer must face and overcome. If this isn’t accomplished the book is not likely to hold readers’ attention.

Probably the most important thing he points out is this: “Be mindful that there should be an ebb and flow of tension, a little breathing space. Otherwise, you'll wear your reader out. But at the end of the breather, that's always a great place to put a plot twist.”

A novel’s plot? feel? can only approach “relentlessness” in those few final chapters. By that point the writer should just be dragging readers along at a run. But you may disagree.

Tom is very right about breathing space. Sure, start a novel with a bang. We all try to do that. As we’ve all pointed out a one point or another, those first few pages are where readers are “auditioning” the story. It can’t be all exposition at that point, some action is needed to keep things zinging along. But once you figure you’ve got ’em hooked, it’s time to relax and let some of your characters’ other qualities come out, it’s time to get your readers invested in your characters.

Years ago I read a spy novel — the title of which escapes me at the moment — that opened with some tremendous, gut-wrenching action scenes. I was hooked. But then the action kept on…and on…and on.

A third of the way into the book I was exhausted. Not only that, there was no substance to any of the characters, especially the protagonist, because there had been no time to develop any. This was long before video games, but the plot structure was very much like a video game’s. The whole plot involved our intrepid hero going from one “level” to the next. There was no real substance.

My job that summer was as the “pool boy” at a resort in Maine. The place was not very busy and basically my job was to watch over the pool more than serve the guests. Consequently I had hours each week to spend reading. The book mentioned above is the only one during my entire time there that I remember not finishing.

I was too gormless at the time to analyze why this was so, but it’s interesting to note that most of the books I literally galloped through were ones written by recognized masters of the genre: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. It would be hard to stack up well against these authors even if the novel were pretty good. But I do remember thinking, “Time to find something else to read,” and putting the book back on the resort library’s shelves.

So it’s a balance, a very precarious one, that each author must find for every novel they write. And it can be very tough to do.

Next week: Never fall in love with your characters!


Thomas Kies said...

Thanks Rick! Great follow-up post on tension.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks! And I'm so happy for you getting that lovely email from the reader.

Tom Burns said...

Tension does not always come from action. It can also come from anticipation of unfulfilled promises or waiting for the explanation of a mystery. And a lot of it is not always necessary to keep a reader hooked. I'm a strong believer that the most important aspect of any work of fiction is character. Create a character that your reader falls in love with and they'll keep reading, just to see what their friend will do next. Think of authors like Rex Stout, Sue Grafton, Dorothy Sayers and Robert B. Parker. There was tension in all of their works to be sure, but it was the characters that kept the readers coming back for more.

Rick Blechta said...

You are 100% correct about tension not always coming from action, Tom.

In my post, I was thinking more of one-offs or first books of series since the bond between characters and readers has not yet been completely formed. I should have stipulated that. Of course, once characters have become “friends”, then it becomes much easier to step away from breakneck-pacing concerns and delve more into characterization and descriptive passages. Tension Management becomes much less of a concern. Both writer and reader can “relax” into the story a bit more and have it still be very successful.

Thank you for your comment!