A novel with no tension


by cheri sabraw

Can a great novel be without conflict? Without an antagonist? Without growing tension? Will a reader take the hands  of a contented narrator and accommodating likable characters for 100 pages? Will pleasant conversation enjoyed on a warm lazy afternoon, cold lemonade garnished with a sprig of spearmint, and a passionate  old-fashioned kiss under an oak tree (on a soft blanket, of course) be enough?

I’ve been thinking about this possibility (or lack thereof) since finishing Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

Dominated by one brutish antagonist, August, the story of a Depression-era traveling circus and its menagerie of hard-scrabble characters, moves along predictably, like the vicissitudes of a roiling  stock market.

In Water for Elephants, Gruen builds  tension and fertilizes it with an erotic sex scene, animal cruelty, a lonely dwarf, an abused woman (the star of the show), and the gradual undoing of August and the owner of the greatest show on earth, Uncle Al.

A side-show itself, the novel progresses toward a predictable end:the lovable and personified Rosie the Elephant kills her tormentor, August. Whew. At last.

I almost put this book down for good when Rosie, chained  in her quarters, finds herself the recipient of lashes and bull hooks, inflicted by August, a manic-depressive. As I have grown older, I have less tolerance or perhaps capacity for tension anywhere–in the novels I read, the movies I see, the people I know, the circumstances that fly in my face like a gritty New Mexican sandstorm.

Why am I reading this, I thought?

And so, I now wonder about a story in which the reader enjoys himself–fresh love, fragrant roses,  sushi, a walk down a starched  city street, and stimulating conversation.

I wonder about a story in which the reader enjoys herself–a blazing sky, hope, buttery Chardonnay, real wood furniture, pink tulips, and Impressionistic art.

Shall I write the first chapter and see what you think?

Or, is this a naive notion?

I know you will disabuse me of my innocence.


About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in My fiction, My photography, On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to A novel with no tension

  1. Muni says:

    Yes, write the first chapter. I am all for sunshine and optimism!

    • Cheri says:

      OK. The weather will be sunny in the first chapter.
      The main character will be hopeful.
      The only conflict will be where to put the blanket down for the picnic.
      There will be no weeds or bugs. Definitely no mosquitoes.

  2. potsoc says:

    Must tension be strictly negative? The expectation of good things to come, the hope for the next moment of happiness are a source of tension, no? Writing a novel exploiting that kind of tension would be stressing though for the writer. Maybe Cheary could withstand it.

    • Cheri says:

      You make an astute point, Paul. I find the expectation of good things to come pleasurable rather than tense. Maybe my first chapter should be the anticipation of something very pleasurable…

  3. Richard says:

    It is not so much that art should exclude itself from the sordid and the destitute but that it should lift the spirits, raise experience to a higher plane and enhance understanding. Sometimes in order to do this it needs to expose us to stark reality and and then foster enlightenment and hope.

    Much of what passes for art does none of this: it invents misery, void and despair, thereby leaving no foothold for those who seek to better the human world and its aspect. Its purpose is questionable and it source is too often the privileged and superficial. It may be a platitude that true knowledge comes through pain and suffering but there is no call to seek it out and make a fetish of it; there is already enough.

    Thus your sunset uplifts because of the gold beyond the dark hills and your first chapter will set a scene of the familiar and mundane laced with sadness but of promise. It is not mere entertainment or pastime, it is also aspiration and fulfiment, so tension is unavoidable.

  4. Cheri says:

    Lovely, lovely, lovely. I suppose you and Paul are correct: there is tension in awaiting fulfillment.

  5. Cyberquill says:

    So you basically want a story that starts with a happy end and goes nowhere from there. Fascinating concept. You should have it trademarked. You could call it Block line (as opposed to plot line).

  6. Cheri says:

    Good idea. I’ll check into trademarking in my free time. Do you think there is a market out there for a book that makes the reader happy? Or do you believe that all great literature exposes human evil? Think Hawthorne, Miller, Melville, Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Stein, Roth, Smiley, Poe, Kesey…

    • Cyberquill says:

      I’m not sure in what way boring the reader to tears is making the reader happy. Why do you think so many people volunteer to read books in the first place? Because it makes them unhappy? Of course not. People read because it makes them feel good. And apparently, what makes readers feel best is to follow characters dealing with conflict and attempting to overcome obstacles. Same goes for plays and movies.

      One thing I learned in acting class is that at the heart of every single scene in every play and every movie lies a conflict of one form or another. If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a scene. Period. So the actor must always ask two questions:

      1. What’s my character’s objective?
      2. What’s my character’s obstacle in attaining that objective?

      Not every work of fiction must necessarily expose “human evil,” but there has to be a struggle of some sort. And the higher the stakes, the more riveting for the audience, and a riveted audience is a happy audience. There’s probably a reason why most crime stories are about catching murderers, not shoplifters.

      • Cheri says:

        Are you acting again Peter?

        And thank you for these words of plot wisdom…after teaching literature for so many years, I know what you say to be true, but still…

        What a witty last sentence you have provided. We’re I still teaching, I’d use it!

        • Cyberquill says:

          No, I’m not acting again. Just mindlessly regurgitating stuff I heard in class many years ago. But who knows? You must be the change you’d like to see in the world, so I’m afraid it’s on you to write a gripping tension-free novel to disprove the doubters. Adding some ninesion and some elevension might make up for mission tension.

          • Cheri says:

            Too clever, Cy. I guess all this wit comes from your days as a waiter, where you had to deal with obnoxious people. When we all followed Andreas’ blog, I thought you were the wittiest. I miss those days and wish AK would write a new book. Then we could reunite on a blog with substance. Hope all is well with you.

            • Cyberquill says:

              Didn’t he announce a long time ago that he was going to write a novel, one that had come to him almost fully-formed as he was standing on his head or something? Maybe his publisher returned the manuscript for lack of tension.

              • Christopher says:

                Cheri – “……When we all followed Andreas’ blog……”

                In case you didn’t know, Andreas still posts on his blog occasionally, – the last time about 3 weeks ago, in which he laid out topics for future postings (mainly about Germany, of course).

              • Cheri says:

                Yes. He did say he had a novel in mind.

  7. Cheri says:

    I’ve set you up here and know what your response will be. Go for it.

  8. ShimonZ says:

    I regret to say that it wouldn’t work, Cheri. Though I understand your inclination. When we look at the current writing, we see too much negativism… and worse than that, defeatism. So what you have suggested is a swing of the pendulum to the opposite side. But in fact, life includes a lot of tension and down time as well as up. Perhaps, the most noble characteristic of the human being is his desire to overcome adversity. And if we did not have that, we would all lie on the beach (or some equivalent), and contemplate the waves as we take an occasional bite from the good fruits that fell from the trees into our waiting hands. I am sure you’ve had tension and adversity in your own life, and if you choose to write a novel, I look forward to reading it, including the struggle between good and bad.

  9. Christopher says:

    If you want to write a story that’s happy, uplifting, positive, and all of that, I suggest you set it in the 1950s – the Age of Eisenhower (aka The Great Golfer) – the time you grew up in, and were allegedly happy.

    You might make your story a fictionalised autobiography, dripping in nostalgia. And we all like to wallow in nostalgia, don’t we?

    There you go………..

  10. Cheri says:

    I was happy in the 50’s
    In the Age of Olive Oyl,
    I was happy in the 60’s,
    As my hormones came to a boil,
    I was happy in the 70’s and all
    Decades and their din,
    I’m happy even today,
    Despite so many cranky men.

  11. Richard says:

    Wear your scarf!
    It’s not a laugh!
    Shut the door –
    Or sweep the floor!
    Eat your food!
    It’ll do you good.
    You hair’ll need slides!
    Short back and sides!
    You’ll have to wait!
    (1969 –
    Now she’s mine.)
    I could love you, maybe,
    If you let me have a baby!
    Now we have these boys
    It’s just a riot. All these toys!
    I could use a bit more cash!
    (My father says he made a stash!)
    I would like some pink about,
    Little girls, they never shout.
    My mind, you know, is all a twirl
    Now I have this little girl.
    It’s time that now you took a rest.
    I’ll work for you – that would be best.
    They plan to hitch!
    And aren’t too rich!
    A £ or 2 will help, you know.
    Grandparents! O My heart’s aglow!
    A £ or 3 will help, you know
    Time to retire! We are no use.
    We’ll take that long-awaited cruise.
    More lovely offspring!
    Lots of knitting!

    Where would all the women be, then,
    With no patient, henpecked men?

  12. wkkortas says:

    I have often thought that some of Hemingway’s best writing could be found in his anecdotes, or his short stories, such as A Clean Well-Lighted Place where the tension was not such a palpable and obvious thing. This is a roundabout way of saying (I know, me roundabout? What are the odds?) that good writing can exist outside the old-school plot development/resolution/denouement thing.

    • Cheri says:

      Great example, wk. I, too, taught Big Two-Hearted River.
      I’m sure that writing a novel with no tension might be like writing a lovely poem.

  13. Richard says:

    Nature herself heeds your words: after the tension and conflict of drought and unusually heavy rainfall, wild flowers are blooming in Death Valley.

    • Cheri says:

      I saw that stunning photo of Death Valley covered in a blanket of soft yellow.
      Ron has wanted to go to DV for his birthday for years. Maybe next year.
      Nature often provides the answers, doesn’t She?

  14. shoreacres says:

    Too often, we think of tension as negative. But, as the psychologists tell us, there’s both distress and eustress. Losing employment is distressing; gaining a new, more challenging job creates eustress. Getting married is good stress; getting divorced, not so much, even if the final result is good. Taking on a difficult challenge can be distressing, bringing experiences of failure, but it also can bring great rewards, and the pleasureable stress of overcoming obstacles.

    Some experiences are both negative and positive, adding to the complexity of life and plot lines alike.

    And remember: the only time there’s no tension in our bodies — no muscles playing against one another, no pulsing in the veins, no walking through the world — is when we’re dead.

    • Cheri says:

      So true (on all points you make here, especially the last one!). My title should have been ” A Novel with No Negative Stress” Ha! So, the first chapter begins in a meadow in the High Sierra Nevada mountains. Of course, it is spring. The main character is on her horse, heading to a base camp at Clark’s Fork. Her thoughts are of the presidential election; no, strike that. Her thoughts are of…let’s see….what are her thoughts about? Are they about the Beauty around her, the gentle Quarter horse that carries her so safely or are they of the fine specimen of a man who just passed her on foot?

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