The Tension

Oedipus and the Sphinx  by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1808), Walters Art Museum. Source:  Wikipedia

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1808), Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikipedia

Oedipus the King is a play by Sophocles that taught me something important about writing. Daffy Duck taught me much the same thing.

I’ll come to that.

First, a brief synopsis: many years ago, this guy was told by an oracle that he would be murdered by his own son. His wife gives birth to a boy so he issues an order to a servant to get rid of the kid. The servant decides to abandon the kid rather than kill it, and the boy is rescued by a shepherd doing the rounds. The kid’s name is Oedipus. Adopted by a childless king in another city, Oedipus is later told by an oracle that he’ll kill his own father and marry his mother. He runs away from home to avoid fulfilling the prophecy.

None of what I’ve explained above is actually in the play. Sophocles knew that his audience was aware of this stuff already. The play, in fact, is about what happens next. Here’s the interesting bit: Sophocles’ audience also knew how this story ends.

Sophocles therefore tells a story that everybody in his audience has heard before. When I started writing thrillers, I assumed this would be a bad idea. Eventually I came to realise something important. Yes, the audience knows the story and how it ends, but the characters in the story have no idea what’s going on. Therefore, the audience spends the entire play on the edge of their seat waiting for the truth to come out. Who will reveal it? How will Oedipus react? Will the ending be different this time?

This is what tension and suspense is all about.

We all know the good guy is going to win. We all know the bad guy will be defeated. We know the world won’t be destroyed. Sometimes, we like it if none of these happen. Usually, we're upset if they don't happen. We read the same stories again and again because we like it when they’re told well. We like to see what changes between the beginning and the end. We like to know more than the characters. We like to guess who the murderer is and we’re equally content to find out we were right or we were wrong. The story can’t be too predictable but the twist can’t be too outrageous.

A great example is Drip-Along Daffy (Chuck Jones, 1951):

If you’ve grown up on these cartoons, you can probably guess what’s going to happen. The stories are very similar. But there are little variations in each of these cartoons that make us laugh and surprise us. Even here, in this cartoon, there’s a neat twist at the end. Yes, it's almost entirely predictable, but the cartoon is still entertaining. There is still a sense of anticipation at every turn, a kind of tension that lets us know that laughs are coming.

It’s really difficult to articulate how to write a story that creates the sense of anticipation, suspense, and tension that we see in great stories. For those who are interested, here are some things I’ve learned about writing good suspense and tension:

  • Never keep everything hidden from the reader.
  • Never give everything away to the reader all at once.
  • Your first action scene should be smaller than your second one, which is smaller than the third one, which is smaller than the fourth one, etcetera.
  • Never let the story die with a whimper: build it up and let it blow.
  • Deny your characters what they want; every time they take a shot at it, deny them success.
  • The bad guy should get what they want before the good guy does, and then the good guy has to get it back/stop the bad guy/destroy the thing/insert appropriate ending here.
  • Don’t worry if your reader figures out the twist: we always keep reading to make sure we’re right.
  • If you want to fool your reader into thinking they’ve got the right answer and then toss in the surprise twist, you want this reaction...

not this one...

Make it count.

There you have it. Ancient Greek tragedy and Daffy Duck come together. Welcome to my brain.