I've been in a few critique groups in the course of my writing career (if you can call it that). And like any cast of characters, I fit right in with the oddest of the odd. We all have our areas of passion and we lord over those passions like lions over a freshly fallen gazelle. In my view this is what makes critique groups so effective. If you get the blend just right you can cover everything: emotion, tone, character arc, pacing, voice, plot, POV, clichés, stilted dialogue, typos, passive voice, too many adverbs and the inevitable, "I just don't get it." Me? I'm the tension guy. I beat that drum till my critique mates wonder if that's the only tune in my head. And I thought I had it down. Like I really understood tension, how to create it and keep it going.
Then this one event happened that changed everything.
That one event was the shocking death of what I assumed was the protagonist in George R.R. Martin's brilliant Game of Thrones. Up to that point I pretty much saw the protagonist as a catalyst for tension, as in what trials will the protagonist have to overcome before either emerging victorious, or dying tragically in the final pages. In this classic case, tension is created by all the other characters who typically meet some sort of demise in order of their importance to the A or B story. Before I go any further, know that I am not a fan of fantasy. I mean if a book weighs more than a sack of flour, then how could it possibly maintain tension throughout? So rather than read the book, I decided to watch the series on HBO. And in episode 9 of Season One, when that heroic character was brutally killed by that evil snot-nosed prince--everything changed.
And I mean everything. For one, I had to read the books, which I did in record time. For another, the tension went through the roof. Why? Because if an author is willing kill off a character that important, that sympathetic, that heroic, that soon, then who isn't he willing to kill? No one was safe. If I were a character in that book, I would be scrambling for the nearest castle, filling the moat with oil and piranhas, and barricading myself inside with enough food and flaming arrows to outlast a 100 year siege.
Once you have that much tension flowing, then you have all the other benefits that come with it. Trust is out the window. Treachery runs amok. Everyone is a potential protagonist and an antagonist. You can write dialogue rich with subtext while uncertain eyes shift from one shadow to the next. I had never seen or read a landscape so rich in my most valued treasure: tension. It dripped from every blade and spike and was the force that pulled me through all the slow spots because I just knew something big was always around the corner.
So now when I write I am always mindful of that lesson. Sure, it makes my characters restless and unwilling to work for me. If I were them, I wouldn't want to be in my book either because they can see in my outline that I am prepared to sacrifice my protagonist if it increases tension. But there is one problem with this approach. Maybe it's what 4-H kids feel when they raise a pig like a pet, and then bring it to the county fair where it is sold at auction and then taken to the...well, you know. The problem is I don't know if I have it in me. When the time is right, will I be able to swing the axe, or stab the knife, or pull the trigger? I know my protagonist is betting that I won't.
We'll just have to see, won't we?