When I first began thinking seriously about how stories are told I came up with a metaphor that helped me see plot and character as a functional model. My idea what that a character is like a pressure cooker. With no heat under it a pressure cooker is static, stable, unmoved. But add heat and the pressure begins to build. Subject the cooker to enough energy and at some point the release valve is going to be triggered or the cooker will explode.
Granted that’s a bit dramatic, but it worked for me because it had all the necessary parts. A vessel (character), energy affecting the vessel (plot), and a predictable, inevitable outcome (change/revelation) determined by mixing the two.
Because I was writing literary fiction at the time I knew any movement of character resulting from the build up of pressure might be subtle or slight, and preferably ought to be. In practice I fumbled the ball plenty, variously understating to the point of uncertainty and overstating to the point of melodrama, but in general I felt the model held up.
When I first read Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular I was pleased how my own model fit with Hills’ belief that tension is the best method of creating suspense. The pressure-cooker metaphor says nothing about surprising revelations or twists or formulaic models, but simply posits an inevitable progression. Take a character as they are when the story begins and subject them to stress. At some point any character, no matter how resolute or stoic, is going to show the effects of that stress.
Here’s Hills, from the opening paragraph of this section:
Events of consequence seldom occur without anxiety. Change is pain, we know.
Change is indeed pain. Even the specter of change can produce so much anxiety and fear — often subconsciously — that a person will be crippled psychologically or turn to substance abuse in order to avoid altering their reality — even as they inevitably alter their reality by doing so, and perhaps to an even greater degree. If insanity and addiction do not take hold, fear of change and change itself (particularly if it is imposed and unavoidable) can cause a person to mortgage friendships, family ties, work or physical health in pursuit of denial and avoidance.
From a craft point of view, then, the idea of “turning up the heat” on a character need not involve great dramatic events. We all recognize in ourselves and in others a comfort level that is far too easily threatened by change. Fortunately, readers bring those personal experiences to the fiction they read, decreasing the need for authors to explain or motivate such unease.
Movement of character in fiction may be a far more subtle and gentler matter than all this indicates, but it also may very well take place in some sort of stress situation.
You’re not obligated to set off bombs under your characters. You can be as subtle as you want: it’s your story. But somewhere along the line something’s going to happen to your characters, and even the implied threat of change may be enough to make them squirm in a dramatically meaningful way.
How you “turn up the heat” is up to you. You can present issues or conflicts that overload your characters and their capacity to respond. You can constrain characters, taking away options and coping mechanisms until they can no longer avoid the issue at hand.
Hills does an excellent job in this section of explaining how a character’s response to stress can be either expressed or suppressed, further multiplying the ways in which a character might be shown to respond to stress. Too, there’s the question of how self-aware your characters are. If they’re conscious of the stressors in their lives they may still act in a repressed or suppressed manner. If the scope or scale of the issues they face are beyond them — if they don’t have the capacity to understand — then they may blindly blunder along. (A clear recipe for tragedy.)
From a craft perspective stress as a mechanism is both incredibly useful and flexible. It’s an agent of change, an agent of pain, an agent of motivated dramatic expression and an agent of movement. Better yet, it relies on tension and inevitability as a method of generating interest and suspense.
Next up: The Importance and Unimportance of Plot.
— Mark Barrett