I can hardly express how happy I am to welcome Alan Gibbons to the blog today. When I read his novel, The Edge, I was really impressed at how the opening scenes give a sense of tense violence, even though there is no overt violent action shown. So when I got the chance to ask Alan to write a guest post, I was thrilled when he revealed how he achieved it. But enough of my babbling. I’ll hand you over to Alan.
Tension is an overused term in the world of fiction. Most people think of it in terms of gradually building the suspense to hook their readers. Others see it is the conscious withholding or delaying of information to intrigue them. However you look at it, people seem to think it is an indispensable feature of a good yarn.
One of my best-received books is The Edge, a Carnegie Medal-nominated thriller that deals with the issues of domestic violence, racism and identity. Many readers and reviewers remark on the use of tension, especially in the first chapter, which is gratifying but in almost equal measure perplexing as I don’t remember ever consciously thinking about it as an issue. Sometimes the book seems to come looking for you and writes itself. So how did The Edge write itself in this particular way?
I wanted an image, a picture of crackling menace that would burn itself indelibly in my readers’ imagination from the very first lines of the book. It was of a mother shaking her teenage son awake early one morning.
“He awakes with a start. Somebody is shaking him. Roughly.
The rhythm is staccato, short words, short sentences, two of them without verbs, an ellipsis. I wanted the narrative camera to jerk about in the darkness, searching for an explanation. It had to match the readers’ curiosity about the unfolding drama. The story is told in the present tense. I didn’t choose it. My narrative default is past tense. Again, it chose me. It just felt right. Every good piece of writing I have managed has been instinctive. Every bad piece of writing has been over-thought and over-wrought, too conscious, too knowing.
So there were my two frightened protagonists, Danny peering into the pale, anxious face of his mother. A series of questions and truncated explanations follow. In a lot of my books the delineation of character is achieved mainly by dialogue. When I get the dialogue right the book buzzes with energy and revelation. When I don’t it goes flat like a bad soufflé.
Now here there is a caveat. Yes, there are plenty of short sentences, but I am not writing a screenplay. I don’t want to pare down the language too much. Most of the first chapter is written in substantial paragraphs. The Edge is a novel of character and big ideas. There has to be time for the discursive and the revelatory. Pace doesn’t equate to haste. It is all about timing and balance. If the room is dark when do you let in the light? If Danny and Cathy are in fear of Chris, the abuser, when do you rouse him from sleep? So the conscious work of the ensuing pages was a struggle with that problem.
So what did I do? I built in a false start. I didn’t give the readers Chris. I gave them his voice, gruff, sleepy, suspicious. He remained unseen, a presence on the other side of the wall. Cathy went in to him. Danny waited…and waited. Then she was back, and so was Chris, stripped to the waist, lean, angry and intensely dangerous and the chase was on, Cathy and Danny running for the tube and Chris in pursuit.
Even then, the chase wasn’t purely visual and physical. That is what they do in film. Fiction should not be that pared down. Fiction lives in the internal, psychological world as much as the exteriority of the thriller action.
So the last tension-building element is not the bare feet on the pavement, the shouts, the reaching arm of the pursuer. It is an idea. It is hope. This is what is buzzing through Danny’s mind:
“Excitement pulses through him. It’s out there, freedom, the promised land.”
The rest of the novel consists of a question: will Chris track them down and repossess them or will they find their promised land?
About the Author
Alan Gibbons is a full time writer who has won a Blue Peter Book Award and twice been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. He visits 180 schools a year in the UK and overseas. He is organiser of the Campaign for the Book and a prominent library campaigner. He lives in Liverpool. His new book is Raining Fire is out on 7 March and available to pre-order from Amazon.