Tension: How to Avoid Jumping the Shark
By Erin E. M. Hatton
Have you ever heard the expression “jump the shark”? It’s a term from television, stemming from the moment when the show Happy Days passed its peak. Now people use it to describe that tipping point of any TV show. I’d like to suggest we writers often jump the shark, too.
We’ve all seen it happen in books, just like in TV shows and movies. That moment when, as readers, we yawn and put the book down and no longer care what happens to the characters. That’s the death of a book.
So how can we avoid this pitfall in our own writing?
It’s all about keeping tension in your work. If you lose the tension, you lose the story. Too often I’m guilty of this. So here’s a look at a few things that might help keep that tension alive right to the very end.
1) Keep it messy.
I’m a fan of the happy ending. I like things all neatly put together and wrapped up in a pretty bow. So the temptation I have to avoid in my writing is resolving problems too soon. Don’t give your characters a break unless it’s absolutely necessary. In fact, load on the problems as much as possible.
Think of all the books you’ve read that kept you gripped till two in the morning. I found Divergent by Veronica Roth to be one of those. Or the ones that fell short (I won’t name any names). Resist the urge to tie up loose ends. Let the relief come at the end, where it belongs.
2) Play on emotions.
The feels! I love a good story that makes me weep and mourn along with the characters. Do that. Make the feelings raw and deep. If your reader feels along with the characters, they will be more invested in the outcome, even if it takes a while to unfold. I love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for this. Don’t shy away from pain. Or joy. Just make it big and make it real.
3) Dangle a carrot.
Don’t be a mean writer, though. Your characters—and your readers—have to have some hope to cling to. Show them that there is a big payoff waiting at the end, if they can just be patient. Dole out hope in carefully measured portions along the way. You know, like George R. R. Martin kills off a bad guy now and then to make up for all the good guys he eliminates in A Song of Ice and Fire. With a little hope, your readers have something to look forward to.
Don’t forget how you suddenly lost interest when your favourite TV couple got together too soon, or how disappointed you were by how easy it was for that book character to finish his quest. Don’t do that to your readers! Keep that tension alive!
About this Contributor:
Erin E.M. Hatton is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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