Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Long Form: Tension and Release

Writing Wednesday

I have an album of selections from a classical oratorio, each of which is reinterpreted by powerful contemporary singers and musicians. Individually,  the songs are amazing, but I can't listen to more than a few at a time: every performance is so energetic I'm worn out before I've finished the album.

Clint Johnson pointed out that, "People adapt to steady stimulus so if the conflict in your story stays at the same level your readers will think it's diminishing." A fundamental tenet of storytelling is that things must always get worse. This is what we mean by phrases like, "build toward the climax." How you do so is one of the fundamental arts of the long form.

DuPont Powder Wagon (Wikipedia)
The original DuPont powder mills were situated next to their power source along Brandywine Creek. Moving the heavy wagon loads of raw materials and milled black powder between the uplands and the river bed was a problem because no team could pull the load all the way up the slope.

They solved the problem by building a wagon road of small slopes broken up with level stretches, like a stairway. The horses were able to haul the loads up the succession of slopes if they could rest a bit on the level sections.

Many popular songs use a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The choruses are usually more energetic than the verses, giving listeners an experience that alternates between lower and higher tension. Then the bridge comes, releasing the tension of the preceding chorus but building a new kind of tension--because it's different--before exploding into the climax of the final chorus.

I'll bet you haven't considered the similarities between music and wagon roads before. But that's okay because it's now time to add fish to the mix.

The techniques of tension and release in the long-form story are much like the patient fisherman playing out line and then reeling in his catch, each time bringing the fish a bit closer to the boat. Each relaxation cycle should release some but not all of the tension. Then the next tense episode takes readers to a new high. Together, they move the reader through the story, keeping their interest with variety and treading a skillful line between wearing them out with too much and boring them with too little tension.

This pattern of tension and release may sound as though it runs counter to our discussion of trajectory last week. But that's only because we've changed our metaphorical zoom level. A graph of average tension over story time should show steady growth to the climax and then the denouement brings the final release.

Skillfully done, the cycles of tension and release are the visceral foundation of the experience your readers want from long-form stories. They'll experience many things vicariously through your characters, but they'll experience the tension and release directly. 

Image: Simon Howden /

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