Tension or Frustration?

There was this book I read recently that made me all kinds of frustrated. My inner growl came out. I found myself skimming through the last third of the story, rolling my eyes, muttering things like, “Come on, already!”

Which got me thinking.

As writers, we talk a lot about the importance of tension. Heck, Donald Maass says we better have it on every single page. So the question begs to be asked.

What’s the difference between tension and frustration?

Is there one?

When I think of frustrating books, two titles come to mind. Both are best-sellers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

New Moon (the second book in the Twilight series)

These books frustrated me for the same reason. Which involved the disappearance of a beloved character for a much-too-big chunk of the story.

Yet they are incredibly popular novels and much-loved by readers. Including me. So is frustration a mute point? Should we go for it?

I don’t know….

Frustration has to be one of the most annoying emotions. And I’m not sure annoyance is something we should ever aspire to do to our readers.

Tension. Good.

Frustration. Not so good.

The first brings readers to the edge of their seats. The second makes them want to light the book on fire.

So how do we embrace the first and avoid the second?
Avoid drawing things out for an eternity.
Yes, we want to prolong tension. But not to the point of frustration. Sometimes, best practice involves giving the reader what they want, then hooking them with something else.
Keep popular characters in the story.
Don’t make a beloved character disappear for too long. Unless absolutely necessary. But even then, you risk the wrath of your reader.
Sprinkle in moments of gratification.
Sure, maybe you can’t have your hero and heroine get together until the end, but that doesn’t mean you can’t throw in some chemistry-laden tender moments between the two. There needs to be a positive correlation between frustrating moments and gratifying ones. The more frustrating a novel may be, the more gratifying moments we better include.
Make the ending uber satisfying.
And I do mean uber. Like ultra uber. Especially, especially, especially if our stories lend themselves to frustration. The more frustrating a novel, the more satisfying the ending better be. Because even if we frustrate our readers, they will forgive us anything in the world if we satisfy the heck out of them at the end. Just like I forgave Stephanie Meyer the minute Bella hurled through the crowded square of Volterra and catapulted herself into Edward’s stone-cold arms.
The book I brought up in the beginning? The ending wasn’t as satisfying as it needed to be to soothe my frustrated nerves. So it left a bad taste in my mouth. Despite the good writing and character development.
When I think of a team of writers who have figured out this whole tension/frustration dichotomy, my mind automatically jumps to Vampire Diaries. They are experts in magnifying the tension without causing frustration. Which is why I love the show so very much. I even wrote a post about it: Tips from Television.
Let’s Talk: What do you say about frustration? Is it okay to frustrate readers? Is there a book that frustrated the heck out of you, but you still love it to pieces?

*Photo by Ellie Goff

17 thoughts on “Tension or Frustration?

  1. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors, but reading his books can be rather frustrating from the standpoint of weird punctuation, lack of dialog tags, and other oddities of style that make the reader have to really pay attention to reading. It’s easy to lose oneself and then have to go back and pick up on where you got lost.

    But darn, once you get into the rhythm of the read, it’s a darn good read with a good story to go with it.


  2. Wow, girl, you’re all over the place today!! Great posts in both places. I agree on your points. One more for me: Make the story have a moral or ethical point. Example: The Hunger Games. I loved the book… I was riveted and couldn’t put it down… but in the end, I was trying to tell my sister to read it and she said “what’s it about?” and I found myself struggling. The story is all plot… no substance. And, while it’s great– really– wouldn’t it be greater if it had hidden allegorical meaning (a la C.S. Lewis and the likes)?

    • Great point, Erin!

      But you know what’s funny….I sort of think Hunger Games does have a moral/ethical point. I think it’s all about the desensitization of our culture. There are things we see on TV these days that nobody would have tolerated fifty years ago. Heck, twenty years ago! Especially reality TV. I think Hunger Games really explores that.

      See, this is why I love literature! There’s always something to discuss and debate. 🙂

      And I completely agree about CS Lewis. He was the king of allegory. It’s crazy to me how many people read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe not knowing Aslan is a Jesus-figure.

      • I led the discussion of Hunger Games in my book club, so I did a little digging and found an interview of Suzanne Collins in which she said (but don’t quote me) that the acceptance of violence in our society, especially among young adults (her genre), was a main concern of hers. Once I read that, things clicked in a new way. The main characters, Katniss and Peeta, subtly address this theme. Peeta rejects violence and would rather die than lose his identity by giving in to the game. Katniss is unsure but pragmatic. Collins explores the theme of violence through Katniss without smacking the reader in the face with it. The book came alive to me in a new way once I saw that.

  3. One thing that frustrates me faster than anything in a book is when there is no variety in the conflict. If one issue is dragged out too long without some type of either resolution or complication, it gets old fast. Or if there are multiple conflicts, but they are all of the same type. For example: the heroine assumes something wrong about the hero and tension builds in chapter 3. They finally have that needed conversation, but in chapter 10 there is another wrong assumption and more hurt feelings. Grr…hate that. And as a reader, if I get too frustrated, I never make it to the end, so even if the end is spectacular, I’ll never know it. If I get so frustrated that I’m thinking more about strangling the characters than actually geting lost in their story, I’m not likely to try that author again.

    You’re so right, Katie. Tension = Good; Frustration = Bad

  4. Interesting food for thought, Katie. Tension keeps me reading because I want to see/experience a resolution. Frustration causes me to close the book and never desire to pick up a book from that author again. But I’m with you. I love Harry Potter and there’s lots of frustration in there. Hmmm… But we know good prevails. Perhaps that’s one of the things that keep us reading Scripture. The tension of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees keeps me reading because I want to see Jesus handles very sticky people and situations. But frustration that even the disciples couldn’t see who He really was sometimes causes me to want to close the book for good. But we know good prevails. Maybe that’s the key.

  5. Sometimes, Katie, I think my frustration comes from my lack of patience. One of my favorite authors (prolific, talented and well-known) wrote a series based largely on her ancestral history (mostly females). I read the first books in the series, enjoyed them, but was disappointed in the endings, maybe because they were based in truth. Reading the next two books was even more exasperating because the characters had the same problems, only different names. But I grumbled and muttered through, certain that my favorite author would not disappoint me. By the time I got to the series’ end, the resolution was too little too late for me. It might have made for a good non-fiction study on generational curses, but it didn’t make for good fiction. I asked myself often, “Or is it just me?”

  6. Aha. You just clarified for me what I really disliked about Maeve Binchy’s last book (s). Her early books were favorites but the last one–yawn. So saccharin sweet and unsatisfying. Also, I’ll get some haters, but I have to throw Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged into this mix. Sorry, but she bored for at least 400 pages as she left the story to rant the same thing, over and over and over.

    Great post! I’m headed over to see what else you’ve written. And congrats on your new book!

  7. *Potential Hunger Games (Mockingjay) Spoiler*

    Hunger Games is a great example of tension vs frustration. The first book was great. I felt it did tension very well. The second book was good enough for me to pick up the third at 3am. The third was frustration all the way. I simply could not understand most of Katniss’s responses and considering she spent half the book in the closet after being a gung-ho-I’ll-do-anything-for-my-family-and-friends kind of girl in the first two, I felt let down and, well, frustrated. And the ending, after all that build-up was frustrating indeed.

    • So funny you bring this up Samantha, because this seems to be the consensus. I’ve only read the first book. I have yet to read books 2 and 3, because I’ve heard the same thing. I’ve heard book 2 is good. But book 3 is horrible. And I liked book 1 so much I don’t want to ruin it!

      • I think Mockingjay is one instance where the movie might very well be better than the book. Movies aren’t limited to one perspective like the books are, so they have a bit of leeway to make it more interesting. I guess we’ll find out in a few years. 🙂

  8. I find frustrating books to be more than I want to deal with. If it is to frustrating I simply move on to the next one. Time is to short to deal with that kind of reading. I want the tension but I don’t like to be frustrated in the process. Life is already frustrating enough.
    Glenda Parker

  9. Although I seldom intentionally stop reading a book, there are times when it becomes preempted by another book and then another until I get to the point of not caring about the first book.

    I’m not sure if I was “frustrated” with the first book, but something certainly went awry that caused me to lose interest.

  10. Chiming in late here, Katie.
    I’ve been frustrated by books before. I don’t even bother to light them on fire anymore. I just toss ’em out. One book strung me along on the weakest of reasons (really? This is why the hero and heroine couldn’t be together?) I kept turning pages, not because I was enthralled but because I hoped the author would do something more. Give me a reason to keep reading.
    In the end, I wasn’t satisfied. I was frustrated.
    And truthfully, I’ve never loved a book that frustrated to me for no good reason.
    Never loved a guy that did either.

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