We Rhobin’s Rounders have written about tension before, but that was illustrating it in use. Here are several examples from my writing.
My way of composing a story is to be an obedient scribe to my characters. They tell me how they react to the cauldron of situations I drop them into. However, even the prophets among them cannot foretell what those situations will be, otherwise the story would have as much tension as a sleeping jellyfish.
So, part of my task as author is to answer the question, “What happens next?”
Within the next couple of months, one of my favourite stories will take flight again, with a new title: Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit. If in the comments below you can tell me what the book used to be, you have earned a free advance review copy.
At a particular stage, I settled for sleep with the thought, We need something here to liven things up. Being a moderately obsessive student of anything anywhere, I have a good knowledge of Australian history, so only needed ten minutes of extra research to come up with this:
Tuesday afternoon, Gerald was having fun assisting Mr Clarke, the schoolmaster. This was one of the tasks Mr Taylor found particularly challenging, but within the first few days, all twelve lads were happily following Gerald’s instructions.
The sound of galloping horses made him look out the open window. Three lathered horses pulled up. Their riders jumped to the ground, each carrying a gun. They tied their horses to the rail in front of the school building on the run, and burst in. One trained his weapon on the teacher, another on Gerald. The black eye of the gun looked Gerald in the face, and he stopped breathing for a moment. He held his hands up, palms facing forward.
The third man smiled, seeming friendly, which was bizarre in the circumstances. He was mid-thirties, and apart from the dust of the road, looked neat.
All three men also had revolvers holstered on their belts.
The smiling man said, unhurried, apparently polite and gentle, “Nobody will get hurt, provided my directions are followed to the letter. I’m Ben Hall, and I’m acting from necessity.”
Like everyone in New South Wales, Gerald had of course heard of the notorious bushranger, credited with more violent crime than any other.
“A bunch of police is following us. I reckon they’ll be here within ten minutes. And the big-heads in Sydney have decided, my mates and I can be shot anytime, anywhere. So, naturally, we need protection.”
He glanced out the window, but his two offsiders continued their vigilant attention. “I assume all of you have a horse in the back?”
“The boys all do,” Gerald answered. “Mr Clarke lives on the premises and stables his horse at the inn. I live within walking distance, and mine is at home.”
“Thank you.” He looked at the teacher. “You will now go to the inn and get them to send men out to the fathers of each of these boys. The fathers will come, and each bring one guinea to help us finance our survival. They’ll also supply replacement horses for the three of us, in good condition and with our saddles transferred to them. Then someone needs to get this young fellow’s horse, and saddle those of the boys, and his and yours.”
Gerald decided to take a risk. “Mr Hall, may I make a point?”
“Nothing like a gun to make a fellow polite, right? Not often I get called Mr Hall.”
“Not so. I respect every person. Anyway, just because these boys are in school doesn’t mean their fathers are wealthy. Some can no doubt afford a guinea, but I know others to be struggling as it is.”
Again, the bushranger gave that bizarrely friendly smile. “Your politeness has won me over. Very well, the town shall pay six pounds for the safety of twelve boys and two teachers, how is that for a bargain?”
The man threatening Mr Clarke waved his gun toward the door. The teacher scurried out, and, despite his thick girth, actually managed something like a run to the inn, about a hundred yards away. Before he got there, another group of riders arrived in a hurry. Clearly, they saw the three horses, marking the fugitives’ location.
One shouted, “Ben Hall, we know you’re there! Come out unarmed, now!”
Hall smoothly lifted his gun and shot. The man tumbled from his horse, and the other four quickly rode off to each side.
Reloading, Ben said, still in that amused, gentle voice, “You don’t need to be smart to be a policeman, that’s clear.”
A loud bang sounded, and bullets whistled inside, with four holes appearing in the far wall, two on each side.
Gerald said, “Boys, lie on the ground under your desks,” but he himself kept standing, given the gun still trained on him.
Ben shouted, “Let it be known, this is a school building, with twelve boys inside. Do you really want to shoot them?”
The boys unfroze and obeyed, without objection from the bushrangers.
A yell came from outside, “What do you want, Hall?”
“I’ve given instructions to a teacher. You can assist him. I want the fathers of these boys to come. The town will donate six pounds to the Ben Hall Welfare Fund. When the fathers arrive, I’ll have further instructions. And if you get too active and disobedient, I don’t really need the other teacher, or as many as twelve boys. Three is the minimum for my purposes, so everyone shall do as he is told, or we start reducing our collection.”
Hall winked at Gerald, saying softly, “I’m bluffing, but they don’t know that. I have no intention of killing anyone but police, and that only ‘cause I’m defending myself.”
Gerald wasn’t convinced, but smiled, pretending agreement.
An endless half-hour passed before the first father arrived. Since there was no more shooting, the boys returned to their seats, with a mixture of fear and excitement on their faces. The two silent offsiders took turns guarding Gerald.
Ben instructed the gathering crowd outside, “Two men may take that carcase away,” and two of the ostlers from the inn did so, using a handcart, eyes constantly on the schoolhouse window.
To his surprise, Gerald saw Mr Mogden and Captain Petersen among the group of nervous men standing in full view outside. He was certain neither of them had a son in the school.
At last, Ben shouted, “Right. The teacher will return, bringing the money.”
Mr Clarke’s return was slow and reluctant, but to his credit, he re-entered the building, and handed over a small calico bag. Ben Hall counted the coins, then put his loot in a pocket.
Again he shouted, “The horses belonging to the twelve boys and two teachers, and the three fresh horses for us, will now be led in front of this building. I want to see a man properly tighten the girths, so there is no slippage. Take our tired mounts to the inn in exchange for their replacements.” When this was done, he continued. “I want the four policemen to come forward, without weapons, on foot.”
“You think we’re crazy?” a shout came in return.
Ben grinned. He pulled his revolver from its holster, aimed at the roof toward the back of the building, and shot a hole in it. “That’s one less boy this town has to feed,” he shouted.
Several of the boys giggled, but Gerald was horrified to see the faces of the fathers outside, each wondering if the supposed victim was his son.
“You policemen can protect yourselves by standing close to the locals,” Ben suggested. Softy, he said to Gerald, “Surely anyone smart enough to know the day of the week could think of that?”
“Right. We’re coming out. Everyone, move at least fifty yards away. Any trouble, and I kill someone.” He organised six boys to exit first, then one of his mates beside Mr Clarke, the other next to Gerald, then the other six boys, with himself among them. The two oldest boys were nearly adult size, and he walked between them. Each outlaw held a revolver to the head of one of the captives. Gerald found this more than uncomfortable, even if it was supposedly a charade.
They all mounted. Ben shouted, “We shall ride out of town. In an hour’s time, we’ll allow the teachers to escort the boys back. If there is any sign of pursuit before that, we kill all the boys, so you gentlemen had better hold the police on a tight rein.”
Off they went at a canter. Ben caught up with Gerald. “I’ve treated you all well, haven’t I?”
“Some of these children may have nightmares for the rest of their lives. Others may be tempted to follow your example. I don’t like either of these alternatives.”
“I’ve been acting from necessity. Now look, this is the last thing. In a moment, the three of us will gallop away. I ask you and your group to keep riding ahead for a while before turning back. If they do catch us, more policemen will die, and probably fathers too, never mind me and my mates. It’s up to you.”
Gerald considered it, but only for a moment. “Very well. I give my word.”
“From what I’ve seen of you, that’s good enough for me.” He spurred his horse, and the three bushrangers sped up, and within seconds their dust cloud swallowed them.
So, this is an almost self-contained short story within the book. Tension created, then resolved with a satisfactory ending. All the same, I hope I’ve raised a few questions for you, because I do want you to turn the page and start the next section. How do the people of the town react to this invasion?
Samuel didn’t allow his face to show the fury eating his insides as he stood outside the school building. It was directed as much at the idiot police as against the savages inside. Thank Heaven young Kline happened to be in there, with his intelligence and level head.
His own three policemen stood back, rifles ready, but at no time did they have a clear target. When one had aimed, Samuel shook his head.
Beside him, Henry Bell muttered, “Oh God, I hope the shot boy wasn’t my Richard!”
Another idiot. Samuel said, curtly, “I counted twelve boys come out and ride away.”
He took out his gold-plated American pocket watch and checked the time. Ten minutes had passed only, though it felt like ten hours. Truly, that animal could kill the boys regardless, but he certainly would if chased too early. Samuel nodded to the leader of the remaining police interlopers, and the man hurried to him. “Where are you from?”
“Sir, Hall committed a robbery in Maitland, and we’ve been chasing him since.”
“You shall return there and tell your superior that I’ll pay a hundred pounds to any man who kills him, including police.”
The man’s eyes opened wide, greed writ on his face. “Sir, we could go after him now!”
“You shall not. I value the sons of my friends.” It was gratifying to see the effect of his statement on these members of his fiefdom…
So, this is one major way tension is created: a situation you just need to follow through, that then leads to new situations, preferably quite different.
Another way is within the character. We can have high tension with low action, if a person needs to agonise over a decision. I remember an old cartoon. (Pity my drawing skills are moderately non-existent):
ONE OF THESE BUTTONS GETS YOU FOOD.
THE OTHER BUTTON BLOWS UP THE BUILDING.
You can generate immense tension by putting one of your characters into this kind of situation. Here is an example from Sleeper, Awake. The President of all humans is explaining to Flora why she was awakened. This is well into the story, so some concepts may seem odd, like both of them being in two locations, but trust me, it all makes sense:
Even while facing Abel across his magnificent room, she was aware of him, standing right next to her where she sat on her bed. The only difference was that his image was not eating. Both versions of Abel were stark naked, but Flora was used to this now.
Abel continued, “Can I offer you some refreshment?”
“No thank you. Abel, before you get busy again, we have some talking to do.” She made her words into icebergs: slow, icy and threatening.
Abel glanced at a corner. Two cushions floated out, one to each of them. They both sat. In her house, she called for a cushion for him, and the image sat, too. In his house, he looked down at the drumstick with something like distaste. A tray came in through the door past Flora, and he put the food on it. He took a damp blue cloth from the tray and wiped his mouth and hands. The tray went out again.
Flora waited in frigid silence during the few seconds this took. Abel now looked her in the eye. “You’re annoyed with me.”
“You’re very perceptive.”
“Flora, as you know, 123 Sleepers survived the Cataclysm and the Chaos that followed it. You’re one of them. We’re sure that there were many more, but they were in the wrong places. Particularly during the Chaos, many of their houses were entered… and there was no Artif then, as yet.”
“I’m coming to it. As you also know, Tony decided that the planet’s population should be limited to one million. Brad was an old man when the first Sleeper was found, a man named Harvey Kocsis…”
“I knew Harvey! He’d been one of my main opponents in the trading game. He specialised in destabilising the money used by a particular country, then trading in the currency…” She saw that her words were meaningless to Abel, so simply concluded, “Then suddenly he disappeared.”
“His records said that he was developing something called Alzheimer’s disorder, and while he could, he put himself to sleep until a cure was found.”
“That was a condition where an older person lost mental abilities, became more and more child- like and helpless. They did bizarre things.”
“Pity you didn’t have the custom of handing on. Anyway, Control had a long debate about whether this Harvey was part of the one million or not. Mind you, at the time they didn’t yet hold sway over all the planet, there were still wild humans, and several millions, oh Artif?”
“The records estimate about thirty millions still alive.”
“Thank you. So, one more or less seemed like a petty question to many of them. But Brad’s judgment was that it was essential to work out the principle.”
“Abel, you’re being very long-winded about this. Are you avoiding something?”
His dark eyes flared at her. “Flora, it’s hard enough. Just let me give my lecture and listen. Where was I? After a lot of debate, they decreed that a Sleeper was part of Humanity. And a number of times, this has been re-examined, and each time the decision was upheld. This issue is the longest-standing controversy, and the one that’s been reopened the most often.”
He stood and strode a few paces from side to side, in both their homes. “For well over a thousand years, we’ve had a million less 123 people active on the planet. And this has always been a source of resentment for a very large segment of the population.” He grinned, mirthlessly, “Naturally, these were people who had trouble qualifying for children: women only allowed one child, men never chosen. You know, ‘If only the Sleepers didn’t count as people, I might be able to have a baby,’ that kind of thing.”
“Surely, that’s such a small percentage…”
“Of course. The practical difference is negligible. But when were people ever swayed by numbers? There are tens of thousands of people out there, who passionately feel that there should be a million people, PLUS the Sleepers. And since it is the duty of Control to allay discontent, there are Control members who, quite properly, keep arguing for this. Such as your dear friends Mirabelle and Cynthia.”
“Mirabelle and Cynthia have both had four children.”
“Surely. They wouldn’t be on Control unless they had top qualifications.”
“Are you implying that they advance a cause they don’t believe in? Or is the view you’re opposed to held by people other than those who can’t have children?”
He waved a dismissive hand. “I was stating generalities. The bulk of them are of inferior stock, and resent this. Not all of them, true. But most of them.”
“Abel, you know that you’re a very arrogant man?”
He shrugged. “I’ve often been accused of it. But it’s based on evidence: I’m usually proven right by events.”
“How can you say that!” Flora felt her face flush with outrage. “What about your, your infamous recording about Kiril?”
He had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah, that was a mistake.”
“Then learn from it!”
“Look, do you want to hear my explanation, or do you want an argument about my attitudes?”
“I’ll have the explanations first, thank you.”
“I’ve never heard ‘thank you’ used as a weapon before. I must remember the tone of voice. Anyway, just over two years ago, the oldest member of Control decided to retire. When he went, we didn’t have enough people from Asian Cultures, so included that in the search parameters. Artif found four suitable people, and we chose a young Japanese woman. And as her first act, she resurrected the old fight about the Sleepers. It got so that Control was polarised into two camps. We couldn’t get onto any other business, it was round and round endlessly. So, I came up with a novel idea. Not for the first time in my life, I found a solution no one had thought of, ever before.”
He was being arrogant again, Flora thought, but after all that was the way of the times. Men crowed. She let it pass.
He continued, “Until now, no one had ever considered, what do the Sleepers think on the matter? I proposed that one Sleeper be awakened. This person would study our society, then advise us on a multiple decision: The Sleepers could all be awakened and join into society, and in due course die like everyone else. Or they might be considered to have died before the Cataclysm, for is it a life, is it a kindness to be unconscious, merely breathing, for an infinity? We couldn’t tell, but one who survived the experience would have a better perspective. If so, their life support could be turned off, allowing them to hand on, though unknowingly. Or, the awakened Sleeper might recommend one thing for some Sleepers, something else for others. Or advise us to leave them alone. But at least, I argued, this gave us a chance to get rid of this recurring issue, once and for all.”
He stopped. Flora thought about the problem, head bowed. “That’s a terrible responsibility,” she said at last. Did she want these other Sleepers left as they were, in an artificial coma forever? Or awakened into what she was facing: an ancient problem with no modern treatment, because the problem was also a fossil? Or in effect recommend their execution? What a choice!
“I know. Why do you think I found it so hard to tell you? I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want the job!”
“You know, I don’t much want it either. Why did you choose me?”
“Artif assured us that your condition didn’t affect your intelligence. You had great credentials in your old life, so much so that your reputation as an actress has survived even to today. And… I’ve always loved to look at your face.”
She felt herself flush. “Did you look at me while I was lying there, unconscious, and…”
“No, no, of course not. But I’ve often watched your movies.”
“And when do you expect an answer?”
“Flora, don’t hurry. When you’re ready. Sometime before you die, whether that’s this year or fifty years from now. Artif will know, and I, or the President after me, will call a Control meeting with you as guest.”
“And in the meantime, you’ve shut up everybody about the issue of the Sleepers.”
Looking smug, he answered, “No one has ever accused me of being stupid.”
This now sets up a source of recurring tension for the rest of the book until near the end, when Flora makes her decision.
Um, what was that? I ain’t gonna tell you. But, for the time being, you can grab a free review copy if you are a follower of Bobbing Around, or a subscriber to my newsletter.