The difference between faux and real tension


I spent last week in the company of other writers at a workshop/retreat in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.  It’s the first time I’ve done a writing retreat like this: months before we all turned in 50 pages of a WIP and not too long after a full manuscript (or however much we had written).  During the first half of the retreat week we workshopped the fifty pages and in the second half we broke up into small groups to discuss the fulls.  During the in between times we ate, threw around story ideas, helped worldbuild and generally discussed the industry and the writing life. 

It was amazing.  I walked away with my head spinning, one book fixed, another polished and the world of a third idea fleshed out.  I’m still reeling from how much I learned!  I’d forgotten just how much you can learn from reading and discussing other writers’ WIPs.  In fact, this is something I highly recommend to anyone hoping to better your craft.  When you pick up a book at the store, it’s already gone through rounds of edits and (hopefully) most of the gaps and flaws have been smoothed out.  But when you read a first draft, those flaws still exist (and trust me, every first draft has flaws!) and, because it’s not your own project, you can look at the text without all the emotions and baggage.

One craft technique I learned last week was the difference between a faux mystery and a true one and this distinction is a huge eye-opener in my own work.  Mystery is one of many ways to create tension and drive the plot — hopefully the reader will turn the pages because they want to uncover or solve that mystery.  However, I think there are two types of mystery (actually, I’m sure there are more but right now I’m just using these two). 

The first is what I call a faux mystery: it’s when the protagonist knows information they’re not sharing with the reader.  For example: “The smell of rain reminded me of that night… no, I couldn’t think of it or the memories would deluge me,” or “My disease has always kept me from doing what I wanted [but I’m not going to tell you what my disease is, how I got it, or what I wanted]”  (note that I’m exempting unreliable narrators or story lines that depend on something like amnesia, etc).  The problem with this kind of mystery is that there’s no mystery!  The protagonist already has the information but is simply choosing not to share it.  So that leaves the reader to just sit around and wait which can become quickly maddening (especially in first person).  Furthermore, this puts the protagonist and the reader out of alignment — the reader can’t fall into the protagonist’s head because the protagonist is holding back.   This also means that the protagonist may make decisions based on the secret information that won’t make sense to the reader who is still in the dark.

 To me this is similar to the character who desperately wants information but just won’t ask the person standing in front of them who can impart said information.  If you want to use this technique as a writer, you have to make sure to seriously set it up.  You can’t have a character whine for half a book that they must absolutely know X but then turn down an opportunity to get that information (unless the method for learning that information would be far costlier than not knowing the info). 

I think authors often fall back on this kind of writing for two reasons.  The first is to create this faux mystery — to hope the reader will keep turning pages to find out what the character knows but just isn’t saying.  The second is that the author is afraid that if they impart that info… there will be nothing left.  I see this happen all the time — characters wander for days rather than having a conversation because if they have a conversation then the plot will have to move forward and the author doesn’t know what comes next.  Almost always the plot is better served by going ahead and imparting that information and moving forward.

So, then, what is the real mystery?  This is when the protagonist legitimately doesn’t know the information and must learn it.  Under this scenario, the author and the protagonist are aligned — they know the same info and are both on the same quest to uncover more.  This creates a real tension because we don’t know if we’ll be able to uncover that information — if we’ll succeed or fail and, because we’re aligned with the character, we desperately want the info because the character does.

The reason I think this distinction is important is because (a) a faux mystery is often just annoying.  If the protagonist knows something, why keep it from the reader?; (b) while it may be useful to tease some information to create tension, it will never be enough to drive an entire plot (unless the plot centers around said witholding); and (c) the tension isn’t real — it’s a conflict between the reader and the character, not the character and his/her world.  

In a movie like Memento or a book like Liar or Fight Club, it makes sense to keep the reader somewhat in the dark (especially since in at least one of those instances the protag keeps himself in the dark). However, imagine if Katniss in Hunger Games never bothered to tell us the basic information of her world — how disorienting that would be.  If, instead of basically saying, “Today is the reaping and two from our district will be taken to the Hunger Games where they will have to fight for the death,” she’d said, “Today is the day, the one we all fear.  Some of us may be chosen and then have to face horrors I can’t bring myself to contemplate.”   Sure, the latter sounds foreboding, but which actually drives you to keep reading?  Maybe you’ll flip a couple of pages to find out what “the day we all fear” is, but why keep that information from the reader?  Why not come right out with the reality, especially when it is so compelling and tense?  What reason is there to withhold that info — what part of the plot does it serve?  Rather than forcing the reader to guess what danger the character is in, explain the danger and then let the reader worry whether the character can overcome it.  That’s creates a much stronger tension.

It’s very very easy to write coy characters — to want to tease the reader with promises of secrets.  However, make sure that this isn’t at the expense of allowing the reader to fully enter the world of the book and ground themselves in the character and plot.  If you hold back information, ask yourself why?  How does it serve the plot?  What good reason do I have to not share this information now?  If there’s not a good answer, go ahead and tell the reader what the protagonist knows.  If you want a mystery, make it one the reader and protagonist can solve together.  The tension should come from what the character faces on the page, not what the character refuses to tell the reader.


14 comments to The difference between faux and real tension

  • Megan B.

    Now you have me thinking! There is some information the MC in my WIP withholds, but it’s not directly related to the plot. I’m wondering now if I should just let the reader in on it sooner.

    Basically I make it clear that she feels she cannot go home to where her parents live, but I withhold the reason why. I feel like the simple explanation would bring up more questions than answers, and the full explanation is best served through the fully-fleshed scene I give later.

    Not sure what to do with it. Lots to think about now 🙂

  • YES!! A thousand times yes! This is one of my pet peeves in stories. As a writer I understand the impulse – I don’t want to give away the good stuff too early because then there won’t be anything exciting to fill in the rest of the book. The problem with that is that if I let that guide my writing, I’ve just admitted I don’t have a whole book worth of “good stuff” and so I’m writing filler chapters. Books shouldn’t be like eating your vegetables so you can finally get to dessert; don’t hold out on the reader.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Most definitely agree with this post and *always* a good reminder. Also, if you let the reader in on a protagonist’s secrets, that can add other fun when they interact with other characters who don’t know those secrets.

    The trouble *I* really have is when to let the reader in on external story secrets – things that perhaps the main character doesn’t know, but perhaps side characters do or the villain does. My husband and I abandoned a TV show recently because it kept hinting that there was this REALLY BIG SECRET that would be revealed…eventually, and it just got boring. On the other hand, who-are-the-other-five-cylons in Battlestar Galactica *was* a good enough/the right kind of secret to keep you watching and curious and guessing, while on the third hand, I think Grimm has demonstrated how much fun it is to *know* (about a hidden villain) even though the main character has no idea. My WIP has a big secret that I just can’t decide whether (or really *when*) to share it with the reader. I don’t *think* I’ve been dangling it out for false tension (I’ve tried to keep my hints pretty subtle), but then perhaps things could *use* the extra tension supplied by sharing it…

  • This is a marvelous post, Carrie. The contrast you point to between “faux” and “real” mystery is not one to which I had given much thought in the past, but of course it makes perfect sense, and has me thinking about all those old books I read and did not enjoy, though I wasn’t certain why. This is the reason. And it’s certainly something I’ll watch for in my own work.

    I also have to say that the writing retreat sounds amazing. I would love to be part of something like that.

  • This is one of the things that will make me stop reading (or watching) very quickly, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been struggling with this in my WIP. My MC’s whole past is basically one big secret, and I’m trying to figure out what and when to let the reader learn about her past. This gives me another way to think about this problem . . .

  • Carrie, I’d love to do the whole writers retreat too. It sounds lovely!

  • Megan B.

    After thinking all day about my own WIP, I hit on a great bit of inspiration. So I wanted to say thank you for this post; it was helpful to me in more ways than one!

  • Julia

    Carrie, this is very helpful! Thank you. I’ve been realizing that one of my struggles with plot is that I tend to focus on internal tension, while giving short shrift to external tension. The primary drama in much of my work has focused on a character’s own struggles, while the external drama is often less central. Several posts here at MW have been helping me understand this more clearly, and yours finally helped me put words to my own discontent. I need to get my characters out of their own heads!

  • Carrie (or anyone else who feels compelled to answer), I have a question: where do you draw the line between withholding information and infodump?

    In my YA piece, I don’t have the protagonist immediately admit to the reader the full truth about herself (ie, that she’s the country’s lost princess) partly because one of her big issues is the fact that she wants to forget that part of her life, and the surrounding circumstances tramatized her. The other issue is that she’s pulled into the thick of dealing with other events and minor crises that help set up the rest of the plot.

    I’m not trying to withhold the information, but I *am* trying to avoid an infodump. I’ve already been through the process of moving it as close to the start as it can fit without making it feel awkward. Originally it was halfway through the book; now it’s at the end of Chapter 5. One of the book’s *themes* is the fact that she needs to come to terms with who she really is and stop behaving selfishly, because her country needs her. And prior to her outright admission, she strongly hints at the truth. Does this mean I can’t use this technique at all? Or have I done enough?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ Laura: as a reader, I think I’d be frustrated if I didn’t have that information right from the start, and feel sort of tripped-up when the information *is* given. As a writer, though, I’ve got pretty much the same problem with one character who’s pregnant with the King’s child. It’s information that isn’t known, or even terribly relevant, to the people around her at the start of the story, but your question reminded me that I really do need to go back and work that info into the first chapter set in her POV.

    I don’t know if this sounds helpful, but perhaps you could break your princess info into two pieces: what and why. It’s the ‘what’ that I think readers need to keep them grounded in the beginning, whereas the ‘why’ can probably be spread out over later chapters. To go back to my own example: I think I need to be clear that she’s carrying the King’s baby right at the beginning (and setting and circumstance will make it clear that more is going on). Then, several chapters later, I let her explain to another character that she fell in love with the King even though the Queen is sort of evil-scary, and thought that it would be okay because the K has been known to take mistresses before, but then the Q must have been jealous *anyway* because she threw her in the dungeon and she doesn’t *think* the Q knows about the baby, otherwise she probably would have been immediately executed, not imprisoned (all of which is, of course, *way* too much info dump to put right at the beginning).
    Just my thoughts on the matter.

  • @Hep –


    Two lines. That’s all it took to change the ending of Chapter 1. Then add a smattering of references, a few words here and there … and suddenly, I have a story again. 😀

  • Megan B.

    Don’t you just love it when, faced with a difficult problem in your WIP, you think of a simple and elegant solution that makes you smile?

  • djstipe

    Another use of tension I find intriguing is when the reader is given more information than the protagonist, so we realize a mystery is unfolding, can spot the tension building and releasing in advance, but are left to wonder how the protagonist will respond to it. In Jordan’s Wheel of Time, there are many times the reader is aware that a character is actually one of the Foresaken, but Mat/Rand/Perrin or whoever we are looking through is unaware of it. The entire 10th book is an exercise in this sort of tension as we see how the various factions react to the beacon of saidar/saidin that is Rand and Naeneve et al from the end of book 9.

    I’m not sure, but I think having well established characters is probably the key to making this sort of tension work. The reader needs to be able to reliably predict the protagonist’s reaction to the situation so that prediction can either be fulfilled or denied. This is the first time I’ve really thought about it in this way, though (thanks to the way you framed this post) – though I’ve always loved the way that series uses 3rd person limited.

    Thanks for the brain food.

  • umibozu

    This is a fascinating insight, and whilst reading this, I suddenly realized something completely different. It’s a long stretch, but here goes: this idea of ‘faux’ versus ‘real’ tension explains why I personally find Tori Amos such a good songwriter.

    Explanation: in real life, whenever people relate current experiences to meaningful moments in the past, they don’t do it cognitively – the meaning-giving happens automatically and instinctively. So, suppose I write a scene where the protagonist meets someone who reminds him/her of something terrible that happened in his/her youth. Then, the protagonist wouldn’t think: “this is just like…when…”. Instead, the protagonist actually experiences reality through a different lense: everything that is said and done in that specific situation gets reframed in terms of that other experience.

    This relates to faux tension because a protagonist would never be a vehicle of revealing information to him- or herself that he or she already knows, because he or she already knows that. It makes the half-revealing of such a meaning-giving event doubly bad: first because of the reason you give, but second because characters just don’t work that way.

    It relates to Tori Amos because many of her lyrics are very good at evoking a direct emotional response to a situation by using references in her lyrics that are important because of what they tell you about how the author experiences the situation, not because they reveal information about ‘what happened’. For some people, these lyrics can feel frustrating because you don’t ‘know’ what happened, but that’s not their purpose: their purpose is to make you feel what the author feels. Read the lyrics of ‘Toast’ as an example, you’ll see/feel what I mean.

    In a sense, it’s ‘show, not tell’ I’m re-realising here.