A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

I propose an experiment:

Step One: Acquire a garden hose, a stopwatch, two air horns, a terrified piglet, a wheelbarrow filled with manure, and a hole in the ground ten feet deep and six feet across.

Step Two: Trick your wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, romantic partner or best friend, into stepping into the hole.

Step Three: Gently lower the piglet into the hole.

Step Four: Join both of them in the hole.

Step Five: Explain, once you are both at the bottom of the pit, that you’d like to discuss a subject on which the two of you (the two people, not you and the piglet) have historically disagreed.

Step Six: Arrange things such that, as soon as the discussion begins, another set of people begins filling the hole with water, blowing the air horns, and pelting you with manure.

Step Seven: Allow the piglet to race around the bottom of the pit throughout.

Step Eight: Use the stopwatch to carefully time how long it takes the two of you (again, the two people, not you and the piglet) to come to some sort of agreement or compromise on the issue of historical disagreement.

I’ll admit that it’s just possible that these conditions might lead your friend or partner to submit instantly and absolutely, conceding his or her own side of the debate just to get out of the fucking hole already. More likely, however, much more likely, is that something ugly is going to happen at the bottom of that pit, something far removed from rational discourse and compromise, and you’d just better hope to hell that the air horns and the squealing piglet drown out the screaming.

Why would you do this? Well, to become a better writer, obviously.

This is, after all, what you have to do with your characters all the time. Take the famous scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass in the shadow of the great peak, Caradhras. The fellowship is clearly threatened by weather and rockfall, but the threat doesn’t end there. The strain of the conditions leads to the disastrous decision to turn back, to attempt to cross beneath rather than over the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. One can imagine this discussion going differently had it taken place back, say, in Rivendell, when everyone was well rested and well fed. In the cold and wind, however, battling against the evil of Caradhras, the social fabric of the group begins to fray. There’s no piglet, of course, and no air horns, but close enough.

Tolkien knows, of course, that there are three primary sorts of literary tension: the psychological, the social, and the environmental. These are my terms, not his, and I’ll give a set of examples:

Psychological Tension: Jocelyn has lived most of her life ashamed at having fled from the Goblin Horde that murdered her family years earlier. This shame leads her to take foolish risks in all sorts of situations. The tension that results is primarily a product of her psychology, at least so far.

Social Tension: Jocelyn is travelling with Matt. Matt is an anxious person. His palms sweat at the prospect of riding a spirited horse, let alone facing down a Goblin Horde. Jocelyn’s constant risk-taking leads him to a grim conclusion: she’s going to get them both killed… if he doesn’t kill her first. Matt’s psychological weakness are exacerbated by the people around him, by the social tension that results.

Environmental Tension: Jocelyn and Matt might actually scrape by if all they need to do is walk down the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Nothing would provoke Jocelyn into risk-taking, and Matt, therefore, would be able to keep a lid on his murderous desperation. When we pluck them from Santa Cruz, however, and plop them down in a different environment – in the cellars, say, of the Palace of the Goblin King – things are unlikely to end well.

The three types of conflict are sometimes treated as though they’re separate. You hear people complain regularly of the latest action flick: “It’s all just car chases and things blowing up.” While I happen to love car chases and things blowing up, the point can be a valid one. Environmental tensions that do nothing to exacerbate social tensions are hollow and bombastic. If the characters start getting along better when the city bursts into flames, you (the author) have a real problem.

Likewise, social tensions that don’t chafe against raw psychological tensions are pointless. Imagine: Jesse makes fun of Jimmy’s ears. Jimmy, a level-headed and self-respecting young man, ignores him. Not much of a story there.

Give Jimmy a psychological weakness or wound, however, and we’re off to the races. Let’s say his ex-wife divorced him, saying, “You look like a goblin with your tiny face and huge, stupid ears.” Let’s say he really took that to heart. When Jesse makes his crack, Jimmy’s going to have him hanging over the Brooklyn Bridge by his ankles.

This kind of dynamic plays out all the time in my favorite sport: adventure racing. Teams drop out of races all the times, and at first blush, it usually looks as though it was the environment – the freezing rain, the endless bog, the capsized boats – that did them in.

Closer observation, however, usually reveals something else: the environmental difficulties irritate social tensions (John is sick to death of Jill telling him how to paddle the fucking boat), which are themselves almost always based on psychological issues (John was worried from the get-go that he’d be shown up by Jill, and sure enough, she’s proving far, far tougher than he is). The three types of tension meet in a perfect storm.

The teams, on the other hand, made up of happy people with good senses of humor, women and men who can work hard without taking themselves too seriously, usually endure with equanimity and even laughter the very worst of environmental tensions.

“Literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is) often (but certainly not always) eschews environmental tension as superficial or gaudy. We get tight little portraits of depressed men and women staring at blue jays while drinking themselves to death. Or whatever. Epic fantasy, though, is epic for a reason. It’s great to have a group of unhappy, distrustful people, but if you can put them on a rocky ledge above a gorge with a thousand hungry wolves on their trail and raging wildfires ahead, why wouldn’t you? Also, it never hurts to throw in a piglet.

18 thoughts on “A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

  1. Awesome post. This is the first time I’ve heard of adventure racing, and it sounds really cool. If I ever tried it I’d probably cry on the first day. The fact that I suck at swimming probably wouldn’t help either.
    I actually have a copy of your book at home, but haven’t been reading it that often because of all of my homework from school (taking calculus, bio and chem this semester. sigh.) But so far, it’s kind of great. 🙂

    • Adventure Racing is a GREAT sport. And it doesn’t matter at all whether you cry on the first day as long as you’re still racing on the second. The most competitive division of any AR is the co-ed, and I’ve raced with a lot of women over the years. As one long-time female teammate told me, “I just try really hard not to die for the first ten hours. You guys go out so fucking fast!” The thing is, after ten hours, she’s the one carrying our packs and force-feeding us food while we all struggle to put one foot in front of the next. I swear she’s faster on the third day than the first. I, on the other hand, usually feel like vomiting up my own tongue by that point…

  2. This got me thinking. Perhaps these three types of tension help to not only create a more developed story but three-dimensional characters as well (?) I tend to gloss over the insecurity of my characters and focus more on their social and environmental tensions, but now I’d pay more attention.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • I definitely find that at any one point I’m usually focusing on one or two aspects rather than all three. When I go back to revise, I try to look at scenes through this triple lens — often I find it helps me fix things that aren’t working, or take a sort of ho-hum scene up a few notches.

  3. Brian, thanks for filling in some of the infrastructure of my love for certain series. Your thoughts cast some light on why Thomas Covenant is the way he is. I really enjoy the posts and loved your first book.

    • Thanks, Robert. I’ve been meaning to go back to reread some of those Donaldson books for a long time. I haven’t cracked them since high school. Sounds as though you think they hold up, eh?

      • I do. In your defense, you’ve been a little busy creating a nice series of your own. When I was a kid, Piers Anthony was the guy but his didn’t hold up so well over time. I still like the older stuff from Donaldson and Tad Williams though. Maybe I enjoy the long odds and the beatings the good guys have to survive to get to the end. Speaking of which, I enjoyed one of your earlier posts and picked up The Blade Itself on your reco. Many thanks for pointing me to a very good read. I really can’t help but feel sorry for Logen though. Wow. Now I have to get the rest of the series and see if the poor guy survives.

      • Let me offer that re-reading the Covenant stuff has been worth it for me. I read them when I was a teenager. I liked them and my jaw dropped when the second chronicles came out just for the sheer fact that some thing that seemed so epic was still under construction. The realization that all such things weren’t well settled and long analyzed by the time my teenaged mind happened upon them was a minor epiphany. Fast forward to last year some time when it dawned on me that there was a third chronicles. Nearly the same feeling. (Shows how much I’ve learned in a sense.) Well, I figured I’d reread the first two and have context for the third. Jeeze – I didn’t get a tenth of what was going on the first time around. There are some depths I didn’t have a hint of, never mind appreciate. I’m half into the first book of the third chronicles and very glad it’s there to read. The only moue of criticism I feel confident in expressing is there is NO humor (I can detect) in these books. Given the jokey veneer and blunt irony of current culture one might find that a relief however, once one acclimates.

        What am I saying? Thumbs up to that work from anonymous me. B)

        p.s. The only other fiction I have on the burner is Emperor’s Blades – and it compares well.

        • Thanks, Jen. Another nudge to pick up the Covenant series. I’m always torn between going back to the classics (both those I missed that those I read as a kid and enjoyed) and keeping up with the tidal wave of really great stuff being published RIGHT NOW. I’ve been at Readercon all weekend, and walking around the book dealer room is equal parts exhilarating (LOOK AT ALL THESE BOOKS!) and depressing (I WILL NEVER READ MOST OF THEM)…

          • I agree. Besides getting some authorial (seems like it should be a word) insight, I get great suggestions on new or new-to-me books and series to read. No way i’ll get through them all but at least I know they’re there and can take some potshots. I really enjoy Joe Abercrombie now thanks to Brian. If I get one that i’m not into (e.g. Prince of Thorns), I cut bait quickly and move on. It’s a nice problem to have 🙂

          • I stop reading books I’m not enjoying earlier and earlier these days. I try to give everyone fifty pages, but I don’t soldier on for one or two hundred the way I used to. And I CERTAINLY don’t finish everything I start…

  4. So for some reason (probably some sort of vanity) my attention has wandered back to this particular thread.

    Still reading Donaldson, on the third Chronicles. I’m still glad it exists to be read, but, and not because it has disappointed me or failed, I can’t recommend it. Not because I discovered or detected that it’s net “bad”. The word “recommend” just doesn’t seem to apply anymore. As I’m writing this the word “recommend” seems like a plain useless word.

    At risk of sounding like I’m deranged or religious I feel like I appreciate better why people would spend a life reading the Bible, or the Quran, or the Torah, or the Vedas, or [insert name of canonical text here].

    There’s something to be found and it’s easier to find in some places.

    Seems like there’s better chances in your work and the Donaldson work visits similar terrain.

    But the finger pointing at the moon and all that.

    Mainly felt an impulse to negate a recommendation and impart minor encouragement.

  5. Pingback: Black Mirror: Writing Stakes | Alex Livingston

  6. Pingback: A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension – DragOn Writing

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