Sunday, May 10, 2015

TIGHTEN THE TENSION, HEIGHTEN THE STAKES: Why Readers prefer Fabulously Flawed to Picture Perfect

Shakespeare's plays open themselves up to a world of interpretation.  Whether in discourse, historical context, symbolism or intentions to leave the audience in conflict with themselves, there is no dispute about his plays lending themselves to every reader's response.

But regardless of your position on Taming of the Shrew,  whether you see is as satire or misogyny, one thing remains true:  it is the most adapted play in his canon, and always is sure to evoke a strong response in the audience, especially when it comes to the relationship between Kate and Petruchio.  It is the definition of  conflict:  is it hatred? Sexism? Is it control?  Or is it something more powerful than that, something that audiences of the stage, page and film reel find so irresistible in our most beloved characters and character relationships?

The more polite of us will describe it as "electricity" or "crackling chemistry."  The more straight to the point of us will call it exactly what it is; subtle or in your face, novelists and playwrights know it as...dare we say it?  Okay, here it goes....sexual tension.

The best writers know that the best way to captivate and seduce your audience when it comes to tension is to start subtle, and move slow.  Gradual, little nibbles of character revelation through dialogue and point/counter- point rather than large gulps of character revelation in an information dump.

We don't show our whole hand to one another upon the first, second or even the third meeting.  We
don't expect our favorite characters to, either.  We delight in what they hold back, what is underneath the surface, because that is what draws us in;  we, the reader now have a part to play in the story.  We are reading between the lines, concentrating as much on what isn't said as we do on what is implicit.  We have an active role in the characters' lives that is charged with all sorts of possibilities!

Some of the most beloved couples in literature, theater and on the silver screen are timeless because of this conflict--the tension--that draws the two characters in and then just as suddenly repels them like some kind of crazy magnetic force:  Harry and Sally, Rhett and Scarlett, Ilsa and Rick, Baby and Johnny, Sandy and Danny, Westley and Buttercup,  Elizabeth and Will, Jack and Rose, Edward and Bella, Romeo and Juliet...the list goes on and on.  (Recognize any of these?)

Just for fun, I am going to give you four scenarios that play with "tension."  Look at each one.  Analyze carefully for tone, characterization, diction and imagery.  What is the writer doing to pull you in?  Which one works best for you and why?  How are the stakes ultimately heightened?  (See below where it says "Click Here" for your examples).  Here's an upfront admission:  none of the characters are picture perfect.  There is no Prince Charming meets Princess Perfect and the two immediately declare their love and live happily ever after.  WE LOVE COMPLICATIONS!  Okay, so, sometimes they frazzle our nerves, but they remind us of the messy, mixed up, all too uncertain moments that make up real life.  They get our heart rates escalated and our adrenaline racing. The conflict on the page and stage becomes the conflict in our souls.

We connect.  We hope for what we know the characters ultimately want and what we want for them.  Love him or hate him, Petruchio has our attention...and he certainly may be the first and only man who got Kate's.

He that knows better how to tighten the tension...let him speak!

Have fun!

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