This essay isn’t the essay I thought I’d write.
The essay I thought I’d write was about fantasy world-building. I thought I’d kick off by discussing a tweet a friend showed me a while back, which juxtaposed spoof versions of “every Magic the Gathering card” and “every Yugioh card.” (If you’re by some chance not familiar with MtG and Yugioh: these are two fun ways to convert disposable income into shiny cardboard, which fall into the broad category of “collectible card games.”)
The sample Magic the Gathering card was “Prudent Dealings,” a card that featured a picture of two people in robes shaking hands, above a bunch of text that explained how playing this card allowed you to do something extremely powerful, but not necessarily obviously powerful unless you’re familiar with the game of Magic. As you might imagine, I love this card.
The Yugioh card was an evil hot dog from outer space, that, when it died, summoned to the battlefield another, presumably eviller, hot dog from outer space. As you might imagine, I also love this card.
As I was laughing, it occurred to me that on some level every worldbuilding-centered fantasy novel exists in tension between Magic the Gathering and Yugioh. We all need to balance the coherence of a story, its texture and internal logic, with the writer and reader’s desire for... well, you know. Evil hot dogs from outer space. But as I started to write that essay I realized there was another essay to be written first about what exactly I mean when I say “tension,” here.
For some people, tension, as a concept, seems to be altogether negative. I’ll admit that the first movie quote the word summons to my mind is “There is tension in any flatting situation,” from What We Do in the Shadows, uttered as a dry aside to a scene where centuries-old vampire roommates hiss and claw at one another about whose turn it is to do the (bloody) dishes.
But tension isn’t a synonym for discomfort, even though tensions may give rise to discomfort. Tension exists when two forces pull against each other, or in different directions. These opposed forces don’t erase each other—they give rise to static strength or dynamic motion. Arches and domes stand (for thousands of years) because of tension. Waves take their shape because of tension. A sail’s under tension when it has caught the wind.
In visual art, tension exists between complementary colors. Complementary colors, when they overlap, cancel out into grayspace—but when they’re both present in a painting, they create space and dimensionality and motion even in a static, flat image, because the eye is drawn to the difference. Many paintings incorporate a bright splash or dot of red, from a child’s balloon or a flower or a reflected sunset, for exactly this reason, to anchor a colorspace that tends more blue or gray thanks to the presence of sky and shadow and water. (“Spot the red dot” is a fun game to play in an art museum, if you’re looking to add more structure to the experience…) I wish I had enough music theory to talk about why and how tension works in music, but you can hear it and feel it—when a bit of jazz flirts with and teases the dominant, when, in Wagner, the cord we think should resolve one way resolves in another, or when the soundscape collapses to a glittering melodic line—when modern choral composers move from key to key stepwise and chromatically. Musical instruments rely on tension to make music. A harp, as a friend says, only exists because it is also trying to tear itself apart. The human voice relies on tension across the vocal cords.
Tension also lies at the heart of functional storytelling. In fact, I think tension is a more useful way to talk about stories and storytelling than standard (and in my opinion overplayed) Creative Writing class and Writing-for-Dummies type anchor concepts like “conflict.”
When we think about narrative in terms of conflict, we talk in terms of bold oppositions, final verdicts, resolutions—who wins, who loses, who fails. Man Vs Nature! Man Vs Man! Man Vs Society! Hulk Hogan Vs The Undertaker!
It’s powerful language, if weirdly focused on man, and a few stories are best described in this way. But not all of them!
In fact, not most of them. Does the Tale of Genji have a conflict, exactly? Genji wants to sleep with people. Many of them want to sleep with him? Some people want to stop him, sometimes? But not the same people, and not for most of the book? Society censures him from time to time but is generally meh on the whole thing? There are a few ghosts, I guess? Is it Man vs Nature just because… death exists, and time?
What’s the Conflict in The Great Gatsby? Gatsby is in love with Daisy, Daisy ultimately values her awful marriage with Tom more than her love with Gatsby… there is conflict, in that no one can get everything they want—but is that really The Great Gatsby? How does Nick fit into that story? Or Jordan Baker? Or the Eyes of TJ Eckleberg?
Take even a straightforward detective story like The Thin Man. What’s the conflict in that book? Well… I guess you could say there’s a running conflict between Nick Charles and Nora, his wife, about what detecting is and whether Nick is doing it right—but that’s more like a running joke. Is the conflict between Nick and the murderer? But the murderer doesn’t even think they’re in danger from Nick until the end of the novel. And if that’s “the conflict,” what are we to make of Nick’s other relationships? What’s Nora doing there? Is she ancillary to “the conflict”? It would be an odd angle on the skeleton of The Thin Man that left out Nora Charles!
I may be straw-manning “conflict” here a bit. But it seems to me that when you start asking what dominant tensions exist in these stories, the discussion becomes much easier. Genji, and all the characters in that sprawling work, are pulled between various forms of love and various forms of propriety. Among Gatsby’s dominant tensions are love and power, love and class, dream vs. reality, the truth of ourselves vs. the front we put forward to the world. Nick Charles navigates truth and lies, class structure (criminal and upper-crust), passion and obligation, selfishness and sincerity (there is some, in that novel, no matter how well it hides…).
I like ‘tension’ as an organizing concept over ‘conflict’ because it releases characters from the mystery-play burden they otherwise face, of being eidolons for abstract concepts. Pride and Prejudice isn’t about all Pride, summed up in the person of Mr Darcy, set against all Prejudice, summed up in the person of Elizabeth Bennett. What a strange reading of the novel that would be! Darcy is prideful, and Elizabeth does make snap judgments about him—but that’s hardly all there is to either of their characters. Nor is that the only time pride or prejudice show up in the novel. It’s full of pride, and prejudice; the central action is driven by Darcy navigating, or failing to navigate, his pride, and Elizabeth navigating, or failing to navigate, her prejudice, sure, but the novel sets these concepts in tension in many ways. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett find a happy resolution to their particular experience of this tension. Some couples in the novel end less happily. The ending, then, isn’t “The forces of Pride and Prejudice will be defeated by Love,” like the played-straight version of some tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare epilogue, but rather, in this specific situation, these specific people, who faced with this tension we all face in our everyday lives, made it to safe harbor. That’s drama. That's a happy ending we can cherish—not a moral that feels compulsory.
Conflict is, of course, a great tool for structural and scene-by-scene analysis (“Your character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”), and direct conflict enlivens almost any narrative. Just think how much richer the Sherlock Holmes stories are for the glancing inclusion in two stories of one direct antagonist, in the person of James Moriarty! Even In Search of Lost Time needs Madame Verdurin. But you can twist yourself in knots trying to see all literature as conflict, when it may be more useful to ask: what forces are at play here, how are they opposed, and what structures does that tension create?
Creators and characters, artist and audience, we’re all walking the tightrope. Tension keeps us suspended, wondering, seeking possibilities—in the state of rapt attention necessary for any serious work. Maybe that’s what we mean by “suspension of disbelief.”
But don’t worry—I’ll get back to the evil hot dog.
Well, this made me think of tabletop roleplaying games, and especially of the game Heart of Wulin, where the protagonist all have entanglements with two other people ... and that doesn't always create conflict, but it certainly guarantees tension - and the essay clarified that for me.
I most certainly will keep tension as a story driver in the back of my head when running games, it's an amazing point!
I love this post! Makes me think of many things, but my mind latched onto the sailing analogy. It is so apt -- not until I read this did I realize the parallels between the tense journeys I've taken out on the water (even just the Charles!), the constantly shifting winds, the other boats, all in *tension* but not in conflict (hopefully), and the tension of a good narrative, the twists and turns that move the reader, or the player, this way and that, in a winding curve shaped by the wind of the sotry, until they reach the safe harbor of the conclusion. Thank you for sharing!!