Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Fallacy of Logic

The Tea Party,
Harvey T. Dunn (1848-1952),
oil on canvas.
(I'd be the one with her feet up)

Have been spot reading through Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel again - particularly the passage on Tension on Every Page.

He lists certain types of scenes as reliably low in tension: mulling things over while driving from one place to another, relaxing in a shower, fixing a cup of tea or coffee.

He says that Category romance writers are especially prone to these time wasters, and that when they complain that they cannot seem to break out, it is a pretty good bet that their heroines are tea addicts.

He wants coffee breaks eliminated - cut out completely.

I assume - and hope - he means the solitary, contemplative type of break, not meetings and dialogue during coffee.

He goes on to call the aftermath scene after confrontations an outdated technique - because it is low tension - and suggests exposition or interior monologue as an alternative, but no wallowing or re-hash of what we already know.

While I dimly perceive what he is driving at, part of my logical mind asks when the hell else is the hero/ine going to monologue but in aftermaths?

There's no bloody time during action to do much thinking, not realistically.

And unless these expositions are kept short and acute, they will slow down the scene and disrupt the integral tension.

This is, apparently, the logic trap - art should not imitate life in this respect.

I need a cup of coffee while I mull this over.


Amie Stuart said...

LOL that was just funny. enjoy that tea. I think maybe it's one of those things that you have to take what works and use it when it works and file the rest away

December Quinn said...

My favorite scenes are usually the aftermath scenes. I love the Drawing Room bits at the end of a mystery, when everyone's motivations and actions are revealed, and I agree--we need that downtime. The reader needs it too.

I just try to make sure there's still something at stake--but I already did have one agent turn me down based specifically on the "wrap up" scene at the end because it felt too much like Agatha Christie. (The agent in question made wonderful suggestions, I'm not complaining, just saying.)

sex scenes at starbucks said...
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sex scenes at starbucks said...

My second book is action-packed and tension-filled with nary a moment for our heroes to take a bathroom break, much less stop and mull things over. (They would drink whiskey rather than tea, but that's beside the point.) I had resounding criticism from betas about that style. They said they craved a "break." So, I added them but kept those scenes short and ones in which important information was delivered AND more questions raised. Yes, DQ, something still needs to be at stake.

Of course, I'm rewriting the first book in my series in thriller format in order to sell it, so "the breakout novel" and following novels might not look the same.

Robyn said...

I agree. Any really good suspense filled book needs strategically placed breaks. That's where we get to see internal conflict best, IMO. Regrets, confusion, even renewed determination can set up the characters for the next round of action.

JLB said...

This morning I was thinking about what it is that I like about certain books, and find lacking in others. There seems to be little in common between the subjects/genres of books I can't put down, and those of books I can't even bribe myself to pick up.

Perhaps "tension on every page" would be one way of describing a quality of a good novel - however, I do not believe that the tension is inherently in the subject matter alone, as in the actions or thoughts of the character(s). I think strong, "unexpected," writing can generate cold-sweat tension with the most yawning of monologues and the stalest of coffee breaks. Certainly any story has to have a natural cadence of action and reaction (however subtle) in order to sustain the reader through the entire plot?

Bernita said...

"Tension" is also a loaded word, Amie. I'd like to expand it to include "interest' or "puzzle."

Seems to me, December, certain plots do need the denouement.
Sounding like Aggie is bad?
~scratches head~

Yes, SS, for high level tension, we don't need what he calls "a strictly sequential narrative" - covering every last activity throughout a day.
And I agree the key is to keep them short and include the next "ohshit" problem/question.

Me too, Robyn, the break serves the reader more than the protagonist.
Perhaps the thing is to offer a different kind of tension - a place, perhaps, where a sub-plot is continued.

Jaye Wells said...

Oh man, I just wrote an aftermath scene last night. I figured as long as the character came to a conclusion or something changed I was okay if I kept the scene short. I'm hoping the rules are different for first person. At east that's what I'll tell myself in the aftermath of this post.

Bernita said...

And I wonder, JLB, about "tension on every page."
Every 250 words?
I hope that's not exclusively literal and that he means tension in every scene, because, yanno, there are a few mundane realities that may need to be mentioned if one isn't going to have the reader say WTF is going on here.

Bernita said...

Jaye, if it developes along the lines Robyn suggested and as Maass says, serves to "deepen dilemmas, then your're safe as houses.

Ric said...

Could it be, perhaps, Mr. Maass is telling us not to fill in - as in saying, You know, at the end of every phrase? Or cautioning not to overkill - as in, you saw what just happened, this is what it means.

Tension is necessary to keep the reader from putting the book down and not having any reason to take it up again. - but, as everyone here is hinting, there are other things to make us pick it back up - needing to know what happens, caring about the character and wanting her to get the guy, laid, divorced, or simply to enjoy her tea.

Bernita said...

He's definitely say "no fillers," Ric.
While detailing every waking moment may be realistic, those details are hardly exciting.
Besides the general story arc of interest, he suggests that each scene have a "mini-arc" of its own and recommends the technique of "jump cutting" ( his phrase) from scene to scene to keep the tension going. Incidentally, trusting the reader to fill in the obvious bits ( brushing teeth and going to bed.)

raine said...

Certainly any story has to have a natural cadence of action and reaction (however subtle) in order to sustain the reader through the entire plot?

Agree with this.
Ebb and flow.
And I don't think an aftermath scene has to mean wallowing or re-hash.

Something wrong with the heroine fixing a cup of tea?
Would it be better if she was contemplative while cutting her cocaine?

Sam said...

I haven't read any of his books - what did he write?

I'm trying to remember books with no 'slow passages' and have to admit I can usually catch my breath at one point or another...

Bernita said...

That should be "saying" in my previous post.

Don't see how one can avoid a little down time, Raine.
After all it's pretty hard to be contemplative or dialoguish if you're running for your life - other than "Feet, don't fail me now!"
Of couyrse, there's also an argument that devolves around just what constitutes a "scene."
In some cases, the scene is not her making tea, it's the internal dialogue/confusion/whatever - and the tea is just an external activity to keep the thing from stacicity.(Wonder if that's a real word?) Or a contrast to the internal dilemma.
Not sure all "scenes" have physical parameters.
In fact, some accusations of head-hopping are based on what I believe are inacurate assumptions of "scene" - but that's a different subject.

Bernita said...

His best known book in in the post, Sam.
As I'm sure you know, he's a highly respected agent.
As a reader I like to take stock now and then, and prefer the writer keep me on tract with his intentions.Prefer the "aftermaths" to contain a little forward motion though.

Rick said...

Tea can be a killer, but surely some of this is genre. Maass seems to be writing particularly about thrillers. I don't know that every genre needs "tension on every page," though the overall tension of the book will loom over every page.

Bernita said...

I can't type/spell worth asweetdamn today.Should be "track."

Rick, "tea" always makes me think of the tea scene in Gabaldon'd book, Claire burns her hand and says a very bad word in front of a rector,

Perhaps we tend to define "tension" (conflict) too narrowly.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. Lots to ponder over.

Bernita said...

The commenters here are the best, Steve!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think it is safe to say that I am a much different kind of writer than you are, Bernita. Further, I have never written long stories, only short.

But I think that I agree with Maass in some ways on this "aftermath" idea. Now, tastes vary, and when it comes down to it if you want to you can write about a snail slowly climbing up the stalk of a flower. But if you don't think a scene is going to be interesting, then why bother with it? I don't know that "I have to put in _____ so that _____" is a very good answer, but that seems to be the logic most writers have for their uninteresting passages . If you need to put it in, I am certain there is a way to put it in and make it interesting*.

As for "tension"... I don't know about that, does every book have to be a thriller? I just want something to keep me reading.

*But then, being 21 I am from the ADD generation.

Bernita said...

If I knew "what kind of writer" you think I am, Trevor, I might agree with you.
I'm inclined to agree with Maass too - yet I can think of exceptions. Nevertheless, "interesting" is partly a subjective judgment.
It's not the information he objects to so much, it seems, but the act of pooling it within a time frame and setting in a block.

LadyBronco said...

You have the coffee - I'll have tea...


Seriously, though - a book with all action and no 'down time' is like watching a movie with nothing but special effects.

Boring as hell.

Sam said...

I guess that advice about fiction writing from someone who never wrote a fiction book sort of rubs me the wrong way. You can be a terrific agent (yes, I knew he was an agent, but from the post I thought maybe he also wrote a best selling fiction book) and sell tons of books and know what you like. But until you sit down and become an author, I probably won't pay much attention to your advice about writing.
(says Sam, the arrogant fool, lol)

and 'TAG' - you're it!
Rules on my blog.

Bernita said...

Good analogy, Lady B.!

Um...I take it you have tea scenes, Sam?

Sonya said...


Great post, Bernita! I do believe he's referring to the solitary, contemplative tea-drinkers. :-)

And I have to thank you for posting the link to the Maass agency, because I just found that I'm up on the client page now!

I feel legitimate. Wow...

Bernita said...

I hope so, 'cause I have a scene in a coffee shop that I don't believe lacks for tension!

Let me SQUEEE too!

Sonya, you always were "legitimate" - now it's "official!"

~though I don't believe I've never queried the agency, I've heard he is a perfectly lovely man!~

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree that every story needs to vary pace a bit. The coffee break isn't inherently bad, though, IMO...it's just a problem when it doesn't have anything that moves the plot along. Or something like that. Since every book is unique, it's one of those choices you can only make in relationship to the book/story in question.

And if we followed every single rule you ever read about writing, none of us would get a single page written!

This is another great discussion.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.
Caveat emptor. Always.

Anonymous said...

When I say interesting, I mean something you would want to read. And something you would want to read taken on its own, as well. As opposed to filler that serves as a bridge.

It is impossible to write something that everyone would find interesting for exactly the reason you stated.