This week marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. I remember watching it as a kid. I loved Bert & Ernie, I had a coat with oscar's face on the back of the hood, I was a Sesame Street girl! But when I heard about this anniversary, the first thing I thought of was the storyline between Big Bird and Snuffy. Back in my day, everyone on Sesame Street thought Snuffy was Big Bird's imaginary friend because none of them had seen him.
I remember watching as Big Bird would insist he was real, but the people would just patronize him and begin talking to thin air to appease him. I was a witness that Snuffy existed. I would watch as him and Big Bird talked and then Snuffy always disappeared when someone was just about to see him. "Turn around, Gordon, he's right there! There's Snuffy!" I would shout at the screen to no avail. Big Bird would get sad, and I would tell him it's ok, cuz I believed him. That storyline had me glued to the T.V. It's only after all these years that I realize why. It's because of the awesome tension that existed. Everyday Snuffy would get so close to being seen, I knew it was going to happen eventually, and by golly I was going to be there watching when it happened.
Now think of the books we read and our different reactions to them. Have you ever read a book where you thought, "I already know what's going to happen, this is dumb"? Then have you read another book where you still know what's going to happen but you can't wait to see it unfold, in fact your are glued to the storyline? So what's the difference? It's the tension. Every story needs it. The tension is directly related to the characters and the plot. I guess you would say it's what ties the two together. You need a plot that produces tension and you need characters that create emotions for the readers that cause them to react to the tension.
Tension is an emotion, therefore we need to play to emotions when we write tension. So many books try to up the tension by adding action, or disasters, but those alone do not produce the type of tension you need to hook an audience. The action or plot is important but only by how it directly affects the characters. 1) by creating characters that the readers relate to and can understand 2) you have to let the reader in on the character's emotions and 3) the character's reaction to the problem has to be born from emotion, which means it's not usually the logical answer. As long as the reader understands the character's reasonings for their actions, the tension will increase.
So next time someone asks you where you learned how to write such great tension in your stories, you can say you learned it on Sesame Street.