Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tension ...or Anticipation?

I was thinking about the last episode of The Office this morning, and it struck me that we writers can be lead astray by the notion of dramatic tension. I believe it stems from those two particular words, dramatic and tension.

Dramatic means, to quote the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online:

1: of or relating to the drama (a dramatic actor)
2 a: suitable to or characteristic of the drama (a dramatic attempt to escape) b: striking in appearance or effect (a dramatic pause)
3 of an opera singer : having a powerful voice and a declamatory style — compare lyric

Drama means:

1 a: a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance : play — compare closet drama b: a movie or television production with characteristics (as conflict) of a serious play; broadly : a play, movie, or television production with a serious tone or subject (a police drama)
2: dramatic art, literature, or affairs
3 a: a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces b: dramatic state, effect, or quality (the drama of the courtroom proceedings)

Tension means:

1 a: the act or action of stretching or the condition or degree of being stretched to stiffness : tautness b: stress 1b
2 a: either of two balancing forces causing or tending to cause extension b: the stress resulting from the elongation of an elastic body
3 a: inner striving, unrest, or imbalance often with physiological indication of emotion b: a state of latent hostility or opposition between individuals or groups c: a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements
4: a device to produce a desired tension (as in a loom)

There's one thing the definitions of drama and tension have in common, and it's negativity, even hostility. Conflict, stress and lots of it.

Dramatic indicates a big reaction.

So it's easy to think that dramatic tension means big conflicts. Lots of stress. Danger. Guns, chases, big arguments, serious issues.

But that's not what had me on the edge of my seat watching The Office last week, although my condition could certainly be classed as one of "unrest". I was giddy with anticipation.

Anticipation is defined as:

1 a: a prior action that takes into account or forestalls a later action b: the act of looking forward; especially : pleasurable expectation
2: the use of money before it is available
3 a: visualization of a future event or state b: an object or form that anticipates a later type
4: the early sounding of one or more tones of a succeeding chord to form a temporary dissonance — compare suspension

Yep, it was "pleasurable expectation" and then some. And it occurred to me that that reaction is every bit as valid, as interesting, as exciting a reason to keep reading a book, as the resolution of a serious conflict or escape from danger.

And there's absolutely nothing "lesser" about pleasurable expectation. I was on the edge of my seat watching The Office. I'm never on the edge of my seat watching Law and Order, or Damages or other "serious" shows.

That makes me wonder if this isn't one of the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction, no matter how serious the issues or risks to the characters, is going to either end happily, in the case of romance, or at least provide some kind of resolution. We can read it some expectations, and that in itself can be pleasurable. Literary fiction, however, makes no such promises to readers.

For my money, I prefer pleasurable expectation, so it makes sense I write genre fiction.

That no doubt also explains how I can read the same books or watch the same movie several times. I know what's going to happen, and it's a pleasure to anticipate it.

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