In fiction, the writer introduces his readers to a crisis or a quest of some kind, through or toward which our protagonist will journey. As tension continues to build throughout the story, often by way of unrealized desire, the character eventually reaches that moment of complete despair in which hopelessness consumes her and she must make a decision, altering her, her situation or her life. It is that change (or character arc) to which the reader relates, through what writers call the universal connection, or from which the reader feels an emotion or learns a lesson.
Choreographing each of the acts that pull all of this together, like a needle pulling thread, the writer draws in and holds his reader captive. As in life, with individuals in their daily lives, each decision our characters make and each act in which they initiate or participate, reaps outcomes, not only for themselves, but for those they love, hate or know. Our stories are built on an escalation of tension, like the framework holding together the structure of a tall building, one beam at a time. The story’s tension will ebb and flow, allowing the reader to take a breath in between, while it is the duty of the writer to maintain the reader’s attention all along.
Tension is built from reactions to actions, or as writers like to say; scenes and sequels. Every action, whether physical or mental, reaps a reaction, and every scene reaps a sequel. To hold the attention of the reader, the writer builds strong and powerful scenes that create enough drama or suspense to keep the reader turning the pages. In contrast to real life, in which most of us try our best to avoid drama and tension (at least we like to think that), it is the escalation of tension in our fiction that compels the reader to stay up late at night, reading past bed-time, further connecting her universally to the character’s tension- filled struggle. When the reader witnesses the character react to the action, altering the character in some way, as mentioned earlier, the reader identifies with or feels for her, even if only for the brief time she ensconces herself in the scene.
Take the protagonist, Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance, in which the main character’s life ends in a tragic outcome as a result of an action, (scene and sequel, action and reaction). Gatsby refuses to accept the life into which he was born, therefore; he attempts to reinvent himself into someone he is not, but dreams to be. This isolates him from others and ultimately, destroys him. His tragic outcome is an indirect result of that facade, and a direct result of his decision to cover up for the love of and inspiration in his life, Daisy when she strikes and kills Myrtle in Gatsby’s car.
Likewise, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we observe a different type of reaction to an action, still a scene and sequel sequence, however; in contrast to the poor decision- making in The Great Gatsby, we see Atticus Finch act as a role model for his children, making the right decision to defend Tom Robinson, proving Tom not guilty of assault. Further, when Atticus is treated badly by Mr. Ewell, instead of reacting in a confrontational manner, which would further aggravate a bad situation, Atticus walks away, teaching his children, and the reader, a lesson about honor and integrity.
As in life with people, the actions of our characters in our fiction reap outcomes, sometimes positive outcomes and sometimes negative outcomes, but always through tension. While we know that some individuals in real life are actually drawn to drama like moths to the light, (rubber necking on the highway, reality t.v., gossip, etc ) , rather than avoid it as most of us would like to believe, it is certain that at least for our readers; they are, without doubt, drawn to the story through that tension, drama or suspense, and unlike in real life, that is always a good thing.