The water is so cold! Liquid ice flows into Heather’s mouth, into her lungs as she gasps from the shock of immersion in freezing fire. Her head is within the black depths, and a terrible thought beats into her mind as she coughs a great bubble: I’m drowning!
[From His Name Means Courage]
8472987 thought, Oh, I wish they would all die and leave us alone! Still far away and well below him, three of the ground-crawlers’ flying machines approached. They were already too close for him to radio for reinforcement. Several heroes had died because of this new capability the machines had for locating a radio source.
Four wings spread widely, he hid inside a substantial cloud, slowly circling around, laser gun held in two of his hands, the imaging device in the other two. On it, he watched the flyers systematically checking cloud after cloud below him. He could shoot down one of the machines, but then the other two would certainly get him.
Fear twisting his insides, he watched the machines turn in formation, and rise higher, closer to his position. Sooner or later, they’d find him anyway.
Not fair. The monsters hunted his kind with machines, themselves safe on the ground.
[From The Prince of Light]
At seven a.m. of the 12th of June, 1938, Anikó stood in narrow, dingy Maria Street, looking at a door leading down to a cellar workshop. The paint was blistered and peeling on the dull surface. She swallowed nervously, then knocked and pushed the door open. A naked, dim light bulb cast a sickly yellow pool of light down six worn concrete steps. As she reached the bottom, the whine and clatter of a machine started up.
She rounded a corner and saw the long room, punctuated by thick grey concrete columns that held massive beams overhead. Unlike the neat efficiency of the Technical College workshops, this place was incredibly untidy, full of heaps and piles and stacks. Her knowledgeable eye identified the eight machines at a glance.
Six women and two men were busily starting up the day’s routine. A third man sat at a desk near the entry, scribbling in a ledger book. This desk was as untidy as the rest of the establishment.
“Mr Löffler?” Anikó called.
The man looked toward her and stood. Like the others, he wore a grey dust coat, but over a suit and tie. Anikó thought he was built like a pregnant bear. His shiny, bald head almost brushed the beam above him, and already, this early in the morning, he was sweating.
Looking at his face, she was ready to walk out. But… this had been her first job offer, ever.
“Yes?” She had expected a deep voice from such a big, bulky man, but heard a tenor so high it was almost a squeak. This made Löffler seem less intimidating.
“Good morning, Mr Löffler. I am Anikó Stern. You spoke with my father yesterday at…”
“Oh yes, the accountant.” Löffler cut her off, then grimaced a smile at her. “Very impressive fellow. How can he do all that calculation so fast, in his head?”
She smiled back. “Years ago, the manager of the Circus wanted him to perform publicly, but Father thought that to be below his dignity.”
Löffler laughed, squeakily like a boy. “He might have been better off to accept. You Jews don’t have it easy. Now, I understand you’re a craftsman.”
Impatiently, he cut her off again. “Well, there’s no way you can work as a craftsman here. It’s out of the question for a woman. But one of my girls got herself pregnant, and I had to kick her out. Can’t have shame brought onto the establishment. So, you can take her place on the production line.”
Anikó had a quick flash of sympathy for the unknown girl, anger and resentment on her behalf, but wisely held her tongue, and her smile.
“I am happy to do anything. And perhaps when you see my work…”
“What’s your name again?”
“Well, Anikó, listen. You’re not here as a craftsman. You are here as a simple worker. And I can’t pay you for it. If you don’t like that, just turn around and walk out.”
She swallowed, then forced her head to nod.
“We don’t need fancy work here, this is a mass production place. We churn them out. And one more thing. I am the boss. Károly Csinos over there is the foreman. You do what we tell you, never mind your training. We don’t need your advice. Clear?”
Every time Phil and the other blokes see me, they ask about the horny housewives pestering the postie for a poke. I kid them on, but if there are any horny housewives around, they haven’t found me yet. When I got the job, last summer, I bought a condom from one of those vending machines, just in case. I mean, I don’t want to catch something, or leave a little somebody behind. Well, that condom has been riding around in my pocket for six months, five days a week. Maybe it’s bad luck to be prepared, maybe I should leave it at home and my luck will change?
So Harte Avenue’s done, turn around and back to Horton Road, pop in the odd numbers, into Deline Avenue. Would you believe, it’s raining here too? I squash a handful of soggy envelopes into the box at number 6, and there is movement ahead, an odd shape is running from the house, along the drive at number 10. A human! I am not alone on this planet!
Not only a human, but a female. She’s running half crouched over, a bright red raincoat thrown over her head, and she stops by the mail box as I pull up. “Nothing for you today, Mrs. Pickering,” I call out over the rumble of the putt-putt and the drumming of the rain.
“No, that’s all right,” she answers, breathless, “but I was hoping… could you please come with me for a moment?”
The condom in my shirt pocket is suddenly burning a hole in my chest. I expect smoke to rise from the wet shirt. My heart is skittering about so much I’m sure the Australia Post emblem on the jacket must be bobbing up and down. My lucky day at last?
[From Lorraine in the Rain, one of the stories in Through Other Eyes]
“Kiril, you’re the twelfth person to have physically seen this view,” Artif told him. “The last one before you handed on 153 years ago. And you’re the youngest, and did the climb in the shortest time.”
“Yeah, should get any woman interested in me — any except for the one I want.”
Thirst and hunger reduced to bearable dimensions, Kiril again feasted his eyes on the view.
“Souda,” he called. Tony be blessed, this was the first time since setting out at dawn that a thought of her had entered his mind.
“Sorry, Kiril, she’s unavailable at the moment,” Artif told him.
“As usual,” he sighed. “Look, Artif, all I want to do is to show her this view. Can you just tell her that, please?”
“No, love,” she answered gently, “she’s busy.”
“Is she with another man?” Even asking the question was the thrust of a knife within his innards.
“You know I can’t answer that. She may be. Or she may be asleep. You know she’s in the Gut, and it’s night there. Or she may just have given me an order to block you out under any circumstances. Or whatever. You know I can’t violate privacy.”
“Why?” he shouted within his mind. “Why has she stopped loving me?”
[From Sleeper, Awake]
What have these almost randomly chosen passages from my writing have in common?
Heather and 8472987 want to live. She is drowning; he is about to be shot down and can’t think of what to do about it.
Anikó needs a job, any job, but finds herself in a horrid, unpaid situation.
Tony the young postman wants to get laid.
Kiril wants Souda to love him again.
This is tension. You’ll want to read on to see if the protagonist can have a need satisfied, resolve the situation, solve the problem. Will Tony be lucky at last, for the first time in his life? Can Anikó survive in the horrid Mr Löffler’s workshop? How will Kiril handle his hopeless love?
When your writing raises such implicit questions in a reader’s mind, you have a page turner… for this page. When new sources of tension arise as previous ones are resolved, you have a book people can’t put down.
Can you have too much tension? I think so. I read one of Wilbur Smith’s stories in which the poor characters went from crisis to crisis so fast that I couldn’t take a breath in between. Sure, I had to keep reading — but I was glad when the book was finished, and I haven’t picked it up again.
A keeper is a book people will re-read from time to time, and one that leaves them thinking. Real-life situations remind them of the story, and it stays alive in their minds.
This needs tension, lots of tension, in a continuous stream, but it also needs the rhythm of quiet times, when the character can gather strength, or enjoy good times, or calmly prepare for coming challenges.
Tension is a tool of writing. Like any tool, it needs to be used well, and not overused.
You might enjoy reading a few of my free short stories, and see if you can identify the sources of tension.
Please leave a comment, then visit these other authors who have addressed the topic of tension: