Friday, December 21, 2012

Tension comes in different forms

Tension Comes in Many Forms


Tension is one of the best means to hold a reader’s attention and keep them from putting your book down. It is also a feeling that isn’t always clearly defined. If you ask for an example of what adds tension to a story, the first response you often hear is actually an action scene. The problem with that answer is: action isn’t necessarily tension. The car chase through Paris in the movie “Ronin,” is fantastic action. However, the movie’s tension isn’t the high speed pursuit and crash at the end, but comes from the conflict within the group of mercenaries gathered together to obtain a valuable suitcase. Some are trustworthy, others are not. The viewer is on the edge of their seat throughout the movie, wondering if Jean Reno, or Robert De Niro, or Stellan Skarsgard is a traitor.

In any genre there are different ways to inject the story with tension. I write romances so I am going to use a scene from my story Golden Chariot. Charlotte Dashiell, my heroine, believes that the characters from The Iliad, by Homer, may not have been fictional but real. She engages in a heated discussion with Atakan Vadim, the hero. For every point she makes, he presents a challenging counterpoint. I will paraphrase the dialogue form the scene.

Charlotte said, “The story of Troy and the war was retold through the centuries. I’m saying it wasn’t a mere war story. It had to be more.”

“No. The bones of the story were given to him (Homer)...a tale which happened to include a few accurate details. Like many bards, he filled it with people from his imagination.”

“Something made the story unique. I say it’s the people.”

“He took bits of old tales, injects the legends with heroes and villains for entertainment purposes. Why do you dispute the logical?”

This is a small section of the scene’s dialogue. Atakan’s disbelief, his doubt and the fact he forces her to defend her beliefs is a source of tension between them.

Combining tension with action can be especially fun to write. As authors we can vicariously live experience with our characters. In the following, Charlotte, who’s a nautical archaeologist and part of a shipwreck recovery team, is out swimming in the sea near the team’s campsite. Unbeknownst to her, there’s been an undersea earthquake, which has triggered dangerous riptides. What was a relaxing swim becomes deadly dangerous for her.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like all the team, she was a strong swimmer and tried to power through the swells and turn back. Fighting the tide, she wasn’t making any progress. The current was sweeping her the opposite direction and toward the open water. She kicked harder as the waves surged over her head, pushing against her strokes, the salt irritating her eyes. The bigger rollers kicked her ass. They were followed by rapid, much smaller rollers. Those piddling whitecaps were kicking her ass worse. Every time she opened her mouth to take a gulp of air after the first set, the second-string whitecaps smacked her in the face, sending more seawater into her lungs than air.

She caught glimpses of the increasingly distant beach. If she screamed for help no one would hear.

With some scenes, worry and fear for our characters evolves and grows like a layer cake of tension. In Journey in Time, my time-travel romance, the hero, Alex, and heroine, Shakira, find themselves in medieval England. Shakira wakes to find the Alex has left to go hunting with the prince. In his absence, the king orders her to stay with a wool merchant for a few days. We, the reader, know outside the palace walls she is without protection. We worry for her. The king informs heroine the merchant is a favorite of the queen. More worry, if a situation arises, she must consider the queen will believe the merchant over her. The king alleges Alex knows of arrangement but the reader and Shakira know he doesn’t. The king can tell him any story he wants when Alex asks where she has gone. Our worry turns to fear for her. As merchant and Shakira ride to his home and further from the palace, she begins memorizing landmarks in case she must flee. Fear turns to tension the closer she gets to the merchant’s house. What is the king’s intention? What kind of man is the merchant? If she has to run, she has no means to defend herself, no money, and no guarantee she can gain entry back into the palace. Her tension becomes the reader’s.

Tension doesn’t always have to be big. We can connect with readers by giving our characters moments of tension that we all experience in our daily lives. For example: In your story, your protagonist absolutely must make a particular flight. But as writers, we are compelled to make things difficult. We torment him in all kinds of ways: He can’t find his car keys. The drawbridge he must cross to get to the airport is up and what seems to be the slowest boat in the world is passing through. He misses the shuttle bus at the long term parking by seconds. The TSA officer chooses the protagonist to pull out of line to perform a thorough and lengthy search of him. Haven’t we all had days like this?

In conclusion, I’d suggest look for a way to ramp up the tension in every scene, whether in a small or big way. There’s a little of us in most of our characters, even the villains. It’s only fair they share in our fears, frustrations, and worries.   


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Writers, characters and playlists

Writers, Characters & Playlists

By Chris Karlsen


Q: Do My Characters Have Playlists?

A: Absolutely.


A question I see on author interviews fairly often is-do they listen to music while they write? The majority answer that they do. I have five playlists made and two more in my head waiting for me to put them together. I almost always have one of my lists playing in the background as I write. The music is there but I may not be aware of a particular song or songs playing, if I’m really concentrating on a scene. On the flipside, there are times the music helps me through a scene. It can establish a sense of setting for me or many days, a mood for both the story and the characters.

In my first book, “Heroes Live Forever,” Elinor, the heroine, has inherited a house haunted by two medieval knights-- Basil, the hero, and Guy, his friend. The story begins in 1980. While Elinor is unpacking, she’s dancing along to an album she’s listening to. Taking into consideration the year and bands that were popular in the late 60’s and 70’s, one of the first groups who came to mind for Elinor to dance to was Fleetwood Mac. I thought of Stevie Nicks and her gypsy-like outfits and how she danced around on stage. As Elinor hums along to Rhiannon, she’s dancing and spinning from box to box, doing her version of Stevie Nicks. Watching and thoroughly enjoying the show is her unseen audience, Basil and Guy.

Throughout the story, Guy has a keen interest in music. Even as a ghost, he’s very outgoing, more so than Basil who was raised to be more reserved. One of Guy’s favorite songs when he was feeling cheerful was Born to be Wild, by Steppenwolf. In a pensive moment, he listened to Dust in the Wind, by Kansas.

As the story shifts to the current year, Basil is living a new life as Ian Cherlein and in love with Miranda Coltrane. Miranda is a Sarah Brightman fan. Ian has no ear for music but dances to Brightman to please Miranda. The situation turns comical when, unaware of the lyrics, Ian plays, “Time to Say Goodbye.”  

You never know how something simple--like giving your characters favorite songs might turnout better than you imagine. In the sequel, “Journey in Time,” Guy, who has been given another chance at life is now Alex Lancaster, a successful music producer. Shakira, the heroine, is a London attorney but plays second lead guitar in a weekend cover band. She loves to take songs she likes and dabble with other arrangements. Alex has a cottage in the English countryside where he’s converted a bedroom to a mini music studio. He also dabbles with arrangements. Their mutual love of music plays a substantial role in the relationship and the story.

In “Journey in Time,” Shakira and Alex are caught in a time warp and thrown back to medieval England in the 14th century. At one point in the story, it’s Alex’s birthday and Shakira wants to do something special. She brings together a group of musicians and arranges Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Cole Porter’s The Way You Look Tonight, using the instruments of the period. It took my listening to loads of songs and trying to mentally hear how they’d sound with the limited choice of instruments Shakira had to work with, but I think it turned out well, and I had fun with the scene.

Again, you never know where giving your characters songs for them to love will lead. Shakira’s choice of the Cole Porter song allowed one of the knights at the castle to sing to the ladies at the banquet. That knight is the hero of “Knight Blindness,” the next book in this series. And yes, he will sing in the story. I can’t wait to start picking his favorite tunes.


Interview with Charlotte and Atakan

Interview with Charlotte Dashiell and Atakan Vadim

By Chris Karlsen


     I sipped the last of my Kavaklidere wine, enjoying the view my favorite sidewalk cafĂ©, The Panorama, offered of the harbor. I’d stopped off in the Mediterranean seaside town of Bozburun on my way to Kusadasi, another lovely seaside Turkish town but on the Aegean.

Arif, the server who’d waited on me every day brought another glass of the robust red wine. He set the glass down and joined me. As was our ritual, he broke out his Turkish-English dictionary and I brought out my English-Turkish one. I visited the country often enough to want to learn some basic conversational language skills. During the season, the area drew many American and British tourists and Arif wanted to improve his conversational skills. I have to admit to my ability to being far less than his. Conjugation was killing me.

     I mentioned I’d read about all the shipwrecks off the Turkish coast and would like to write an article on the subject. To my great surprise and delight, he said two of his customers were knowledgeable on the topic. One was Atakan Vadim, an agent with the Ministry of Culture. “One of their representatives is present at all legitimate archaeological sites,” Arif said.

     The other was an American nautical archaeologist, Charlotte Dashiell. According to Arif, the two had just finished participating in a recovery project not far from Bozburun—a Bronze Age shipwreck. With the dive season over, they were in the village for the weekend before they returned to Istanbul.

     “They come every evening. I will introduce you,” he said.

     I spent the afternoon writing down questions. When dusk came, I gathered my legal pad as I always take notes in longhand, and went back to The Panorama.

     I picked the attractive couple out straight away as they came down the promenade. They were dressed like locals, not tourists. She was American tall, very tan, and wore her dark hair in a ponytail. He was medium tall, tan, with blue-black hair swept back in a fashionable European style. His face was a sculpted genetic mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and a hint of Central Russian.

Arif led them to my table, where I introduced myself. Over wine and appetizers we talked.

“I’ve never dived. Tell me, what’s it like?” I asked.

“There’s a quiet beauty. A world filled with shades of blue you don’t find on a color chart. Flecks of marine life sparkle like sugar, depending on the amount of sunlight coming through. For me, the ship had a haunted quality, often shrouded in a veil of swirling sand from the currents,” Charlotte said.

“I agree to a ghost-like quality. We’d find bits and pieces of the sailor’s world, an oil lamp, a good luck talisman, a cook pot. Reminders the ship once teemed with life,” Atakan added.

“With so many wrecks in these waters, why choose this shipwreck project?” I asked Charlotte.

“It held the possible proof of a theory I have about Troy—the Trojan War, to be specific,” Charlotte said.

The two exchanged an intimate smile.

“She has a romantic theory about the characters from the Iliad having truly existed,” Atakan added.

“He thinks my theory silly,” she said.

“Silly? No. It’s you. You have crafted an ideal that is charmingly unrealistic,” he said, flashing her another smile.

She leaned in. “What do you think?”

I thought for a moment of Hektor and Achilles, heroes of the Iliad. “I think finding proof of them would be most remarkable.” I meant it.

She searched my eyes for sarcasm. Seeing none, she sat back.

“Is the work ever dangerous?” I asked.

Her expression darkened briefly. “This turned out to be.”

“My friend was murdered by artifact smugglers after a particular relic from the ship. Their plan put Charlotte’s life at risk.”

“Were you assigned to the project because the murder left an opening?” I asked him.

“No, I was assigned to investigate Charlotte for possible involvement in the murder.”

I hadn’t expected that. I turned to her. “You must’ve been terrified between the investigation and the smuggler’s threat to you.”

“I had my moments,” she said.

Atakan stood and gave her his hand. “We must leave now. We’ve a ferry to catch,” he said.

I thanked them and watched the couple head for the dock. I knew if they weren’t lovers now, they would be. Private smiles, the brushing of fingers, the look in his eyes when he spoke of her theory, gave them away.

I also knew that I had more than an article. I had a book and a hero and heroine. I’m going to call it, Golden Chariot, in honor of Troy’s heroes.