Literary Tension at the Level of Language

In an interview in the March/April 2013 issue of THE WRITER’S CHRONICLE, novelist and memoirist, Kim Barnes, said this about literary tension:

“Tension has to exist at the level of the language; it has to exist at the level of the story; it has to exist at the level of the intellect; it has to exist at the level of the heart; it has to exist at the level of what we would call the soul, that archetypal tension of inherent dichotomies, the moving forward in life between morality and aesthetics.
When we write, we’re asking our readers to engage in that tension because without tension there is no resolution. And it’s the resolution, at some level, that story relies most upon. Even if it’s at the level of aesthetics or if there’s no plot whatsoever or action, we still have to have the resolution of the tension.”

Tension, that balance of opposing forces stretched to breaking point, is essential to whatever we write. So often my own writing and that of my students lacks this sense of pressure. Sure, there may be interesting characters, potentially exciting or dire events and actions, or a lively voice, but so often the characters don’t come alive through their actions and the events don’t resonate because they fail to ignite response in either the characters or the readers. The voice may sound true to life, but the character just talks and talks and talks, telling the reader about the story and keeping her at arm’s length.

What I love about this quote from Kim Barnes is her assertion that not only does tension have to exist at the level of story, heart and soul and intellect, it has to exist (and she places this first) at the level of language. This is what I find missing so often in my own work and I have to spend a good deal of time in revision working out syntax, pacing, tone, rhythms, silences and white space, both in poetry and in prose. I have to reconstruct the voice I ‘hear’ for it to work on the page.

In cinema, characterization is developed through scenes, through dialogue, action, and reaction, but despite the actors’ talents and the screenwriters’ skills, the basic tools available to the filmmaker are the camera at its various angles and revision through editing by the directors that turn the final product into a film, into that specific form of art.

In literature, the same elements are shown through the only tools writers have, words on the page arranged according to patterns that make intellectual and emotional sense to the reader and create an effect that turns our writing, our poems, stories, memoirs, essays, etc., into art.

The building up of tension and it’s eventual release is what makes the story or poem work, whether the story is a loud, high-action drama or a poem that whispers to the reader the essence of a realized, but fleeting moment. What keeps the reader engaged and reading is the suspense that the reader feels as a result of this pressure that Barnes calls the “archetypal tension of inherent dichotomies,” the conflict among and between opposing forces, ideas, beliefs, desires, and even in the interplay of sounds and silence.


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3 responses to “Literary Tension at the Level of Language

  1. Agreed. And understood. Except, is Barnes suggesting that aesthetics and morality are opposing forces? And we move forward between them as we live our stories? That has me a bit perplexed. Anyway, it’s cool to think of the writer’s tools (syntax, white space, etc,) as somewhat comparable to cinematography.

  2. sharondarrow

    Carol, that is something that stopped me at first when I read this quote and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. I think that forces in opposition are not necessarily diametrical opposites. In fact, how much more interesting and complex are the opposing forces that may be closer to each other, sort of nudging each others’ elbows. For instance, we live in constant movement between our needs and our desires. What we want and what we need can be congruent, but much of the time, they are in conflict and to lesser and greater extents. That’s what I think she may mean by setting up morality in opposition to aesthetics; not that they have to be opposites or that one is negative and the other positive. However, I don’t really know. I wonder if anyone else has other ideas about this. If so, please jump in here.

  3. Martine

    I love that – the interplay between sound and silence.
    I am lecturing on voice next rez, and as I’ve done my research I’ve been fascinated to discover that voice is talked about more often by poets than by novelists. I couldn’t figure out why, but perhaps this blog post helps me understand. Thanks, Sharon.

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