Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tension, Baby

So I was talking with some other authors the other day, discussing what makes a book work. This was a pan-genre discussion, although most of us are writing mysteries. But we all read across the board and, naturally, we all want to corral that magic that makes a book work.

What makes a book work? Two things: voice in concert with tension.

I've talked about how voice is so important. Someone could read me a passage from a book and I could tell you whether it was written by James Lee Burke or Robert Crais. The Burke passage will be lyrical and romantic, even if the passage is about killing a man, and the Crais passage will be punchy with lots of description of the actual gun. That's voice. Words that an author owns as his/her own, that identifies them unequivocally.

I think that voice is something that can take years to develop. It's about how you work with language. This is not in response to fads or the tense de jour. It's you and your brain and it's unique and marvelous.

Tension? This is more mechanical and not necessarily intrinsic. There are several ways to introduce tension. For those writing cosies, humor is the ticket. It doesn't have to be a howling sort of humor like, say, Donna Andrews, but it helps if you have humor plus something else. A fair amount of humor and violence usually works (like Ford's early Leo Waterman novels). Violent and sex are easy ways to introduce tension--probably the easiest--although sex is a lot harder to write than you would think. And, of course, action, action, action, baby. This can be psychological action, which is a fancy way of saying character development, but something needs to happen in a novel and how it unfolds is tension.

I think this is partly why mysteries work so well as a "good" read because you have the plot marching the action forward, with the accompanying who-did-it conundrum lurking perpetually in the background. And with the who is always the accompanying why, which I think should be as much psychological and physical. This is just a freebie because all mysteries have that question hovering over the story. Which is why I tend to like character-based mysteries as opposed to plot-based mysteries because most plots are pretty transparent--you read enough mysteries and by page 75 you know who did it--and it's the who that becomes so important. And then you have the writer who does both. Hits both character and plot out of the park.

Although she's now derided, I really don't think that anyone did it better than Agatha Christie. Pick up one of her books. The character development is marvelous, especially for the minor characters. And yes, the language is dated and major characters perhaps improbable (is there possibly a more improbable character than Hercule Poiret, but, hey, humor!), but, God, it all works so well.

Tension. A good thing.

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