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In my ongoing blog series about the writing class I'm taking through the Center for Writing Excellence, I learned two new ways to produce tension: Horizontality and Verticality.
Horizontality, as Bethany Nuckolls instructed, "refers to narrative that moves chronologically."
Verticality "happens when multiple events or times are present in the same narrative moment."
Our assignment was to find examples of tension in our reading novel. McLean, the protagnoist in What Happened to Goodbye? is both drawn to her next-door neighbor, David, but also afraid of getting involved in any type of lasting relationship because she and her father always leave town. This passage comes immediately after a scene in which he is close enough to kiss her but doesn’t; the talk and action subsequently turns to basketball.
Here is the passage I chose; my analysis follows.
He sat up, choosing to ignore this. “You know, you talk this tough game and everything. But I know the truth about you.”
“And what’s that again?” I said, getting to my feet.
“Secretly,” he said, “you want to play with me. In fact, you need to play with me. Because deep down, you love basketball as much as I do.”
“Loved,” I said. “Past tense.”
“Not true.” He walked around my deck, grabbing a broom there and using the handle to fish around beneath.” (Horizontality) “I saw how you squared up. There was love there.”
“You saw love in my shot,” I said, clarifying.
“Yeah.” He banged the broomstick again, and the ball came rolling out slowly, toward me. “I mean it’s not surprising, really. Once you love something, you always love it in some way. You have to. It’s, like, part of you for good.”
I wondered what he meant by this, and in the next beat, found myself surprised by the image that suddenly popped into my head: me and my mom, on a windy beach in winter, searching for shells as the wave crashed in front of us. (Verticality) I picked up the ball and threw it to him.
“You ready to play?” Dave asked, bouncing it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you going to cheat?”
“It’s street ball!” he said, checking it to me. “Show me that love.”
So cheesy, I thought. But as I felt it, solid against my hands, I did feel something. I wasn’t sure it was love. Maybe what remained of it, though, whatever that might be. “All right,” I said.
“Let’s play.” (p. 273)
“Let’s play.” (p. 273)
Analysis: Dessen probably used the verb “fishing” purposefully to describe David’s action of getting the ball out from under the deck. This fits in nicely with McLean’s flashback of her and her mother at the beach, searching for shells. Horizontality is shown in his three chronological actions of retrieving the ball.
I think verticality is achieved when there is something about David’s words about love that trigger her memory of her mother. Although McLean is trying hard to distance herself from her mother, memories of pleasant and loving times keep popping up. Her mother, like it or not, “is with her for good,” as the rest of the novel attests to.
Tension is created because it takes McLean the entire page to decide if she will play basketball with David. Her slow deliberation over what he has said to her intensifies the conflict for the reader (who of course wants her to say “yes!”).
The chapter ends with a cliff-hanger letting the reader know that McLean is indeed, allowing herself to “play” and get involved with David.
Now you try it. Has an author you have read included tension in her novel? How have you included it in your own work?