The Root of All Emotions: Fear
Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham both wrote that authors need to give the reader “something to worry about”. People read for feeling and that doesn’t mean it needs to be sappy, but it does need to hit an emotional nerve. You can hit an emotional nerve with tension or suspense. And I don’t necessarily mean the kind of suspense in a thriller-type novel.
My personal definition of suspense is: expecting something (usually bad) to happen and it doesn’t happen or something else (equally bad or worse) happens instead. My personal definition of tension is wanting something (usually good) to happen, but it won’t and you have to wait or work harder to get it to happen. Do you need both in a story? No. One or the other will do. Both are nice too.
Swain says, “So what’s behind suspense? Fear.” I think the same goes for tension. What’s behind tension is fear. Fear that you won’t find that “special someone” or that you aren’t good-looking enough or thin enough or your teeth aren’t white enough for this person to like you. The worst kind of fear of that type is being rejected. Swain also says “fear is subjective”. My fears are not your fears. Things that would drive you crazy don’t bother me one bit. Situations you’d sail through give me the creeps or make me shake my head and say “I could never do that.” If I think about it, I might even suggest that fear is at the root of all emotions. So how can we use this information?
Would it make sense to match up characters whose fears overlap, dovetail or squash one another? For example: two people want the same thing. They both can’t have it, and it can’t be shared or divided.
So far, so good, but I’m not feeling the tension. Ok, one of these people is afraid of having his estranged wife run away with their children. If he can get the thing, his estranged wife will accept a divorce and let him have the kids because she doesn’t want them anyway and he does.
Getting more interesting? Ok, the other person who wants this thing is a woman who just got divorced from her husband after finding out he made some bad investments and lost all their savings, then ran up their credit cards to the max to cover his tracks. She was so eager to divorce the guy that she signed the divorce papers without realizing that most of the debt is hers because she got the house. If she doesn’t get the thing right away, she’s going to lose the house and her two kids will be homeless.
Better? Do you think this problem is solvable? You shouldn’t. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to tell me how you are going to decide which person gets the thing. These two people are each afraid of losing their kids. Fear is a powerful motivator. Look for the underlying fear in your character and you’ll have good insight into why they behave the way they do.
By the way, this technique is known as The McGuffin. The McGuffin is the “thing” that the characters want and will do anything to have. It was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, no less. So, what do you think? Do you have a McGuffin in your story? Do you think it matters what the McGuffin is or is it just about the characters themselves? Can you find the fear in your characters’ actions?
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