Tension, texture, and tenderness

This post originally appeared on my other blog, Every Page is Page One.

I’d like to float the notion that the essential ingredients of drama are tension, texture, and tenderness. I’m not advancing this as a robust theory of story or anything like that. Nor am I suggesting that there is some brilliant new insight here. Drama is a complex thing and like any complex thing it can be analyzed a hundred ways with equal validity. But this notion of tension, texture, and tenderness has been bouncing around in my head for a while and I find I like it. So here is the beginning an an exploration of the idea.

Different ways of analyzing a thing serve different purposes. I don’t expect that my 3T schema here will be of much use to literary critics. I see it as a tool for writers. Part of making a tool that is useful for practitioners is making it simple and easy to remember. Getting it down to three words that start with the same letter is a good way to achieve this. The trick is to achieve it without egregious omission or gratuitous insertion. Here goes:

The great question for writers is, how do you engage the reader. Writers are commonly advised to start with action, but that fails so often that it must at least be inadequate if not downright wrong. I’m convinced that action in itself is not engaging at all. Action is engaging if it incorporates the three Ts: tension, texture, and tenderness. But action is not required to introduce the three Ts.

I think a good piece of writing can introduce all three very quickly and with very few words. Without reaching too far down the literary canon, here is the first verse of an old Liverpool folk song (from memory):

Johnny Todd he took a notion
For to sail the ocean wide
So he sailed away and left his Nancy
Weeping by the Liverpool tide.

Here we have all the three Ts well established in 24 words.


By tension, I mean that sense that things are in a state of stress or dependence, that something could snap and bring everything tumbling down. Johnny Todd has gone to sea. That is action, but there is no tension in the action itself. It is when we get to “left his Nancy” that the tension is introduced. By sailing away he has stretched out his connection with Nancy, perhaps to the breaking point. Action alone is not enough to introduce tension, but action away from someone or something of value creates instant tension.

And what of Nancy? Her life has changed in an unexpected way. What will become of her? The phrase “took a notion” adds to the tension of her abandonment. Johnny did not do this because of some urgent need, but because he “took a notion”. If he had been forced to sea by economic necessity or a summons to war, Nancy would still have been left weeping by the tide, but her distress would have been of a very different quality. Her man has not left her against his will out of an urgent need to secure her welfare, he has wandered off on a whim. Does he still love her? Did he ever love her, or has he been using her? Does he have any intention of returning? Should she wait for him? The possibilities are many and hard to untangle, and therein lies the tension.


Texture is what makes the story feel real, like it is happening in a particular place to particular people. Often this requires more words, to sketch in the details of people and places. But it can be done with very few words if they evoke the right images or sentiments.

For instance, “sail the ocean wide” has a familiar sing-song quality about it that suggest adventure in the age of sail, and also a careless and irresponsible freedom, a sloughing off of the cares and responsibilities of the world.

“Weeping by the Liverpool tide,” besides naming a well known seaport, exploits the multiple tones and associations of the word “tide”: The tide suggests a beach with waves crashing upon it. But it also suggests the role of the tide as a regulator of the coming and going of ships. Ships leave upon the tide. And tide also suggests the ocean as a whole. Finally, it suggest the Shakespearean “tides in the affairs of men”. Nancy is weeping on the literal and temporal tide that has carried Johnny away, and on the tide of her affairs that has separated her from her love and her security.

The name “Nancy” too adds to the texture, for it is both a name that suggests a particular time and also a generic name for a sailor’s sweetheart. Put all these elements together and you have a sense of time and a place. You can form a picture of how Nancy is dressed and what sort of ship Johnny has signed on. Your picture may not be the same as mine, but that is not the point. We both have a sense of texture, even if the specifics we have filled in for ourselves are different. And knowing the time period — that it is in the past, before the advent of the welfare state or decent pay, at least — also tells you something of the quality of her distress, of the potential depth of the disaster that abandonment could mean for her.


Tenderness is that quality that makes us care about the characters, to recognize their humanity and their frailty. Here the word “weeping” does most of the work. If Nancy were “pouting” or “cursing” or “dancing” by the tide this would be a very different story and one that might not be so deeply felt. But weeping does its work specifically in conjunction with “took a notion” for it is “took a notion” that gives Nancy’s tears their particular meaning and particular pathos.

I think it is important to point out here that the tenderness comes specifically because we know exactly why Nancy is weeping. Some writers seem to feel that they can create mystery or suspense by concealing from the reader exactly why a character is weeping. I think this is a serious mistake. It is only because we know exactly why Nancy is weeping, because we know how carelessly Johnny has treated her, that we feel tenderness towards her, that she becomes interesting to us as a particular human being.

And it is only because we know why she is weeping that the scene is infused with so much tension. Creating tension is vastly superior to withholding information as a way to create suspense. There is no mystery about what has happened to Nancy, but there is enormous mystery about what will happen to her as a result, and because of the tension, texture, and tenderness that the verse creates, we care what becomes of her.

This Degas drawing, Waiting, seems to me to illustrate tension, texture and tenderness very well. I’ve not studied art well enough to suggest any particular merit to the three Ts as applied to drawing, but I can readily identify each of them in this drawing, and they seem to me to constitute much of its appeal.

By the way, in the song, Johnny comes back from sea and finds Nancy, “walking with another sailor, all along the Liverpool strand” (Again, this is from memory. There are several variations online but I can’t find either the words or the tune exactly as they exist in my memory, and have existed from childhood. Such is the nature of the folk process.)

Here are tension, texture, and tenderness again in the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

The texture is the most obvious element in this passage. Steinbeck always seems to be at pains to establish texture at the beginning of each work, and here it takes the form of this wonderfully impressionistic mix of sights, sounds, and emotions, which not only puts you in Cannery Row but gives you the sense of the place as a kind of bewildering assault on the senses.

But there is no single character here to whom something might happen or for whom we might feel some compassion, so where do tension and tenderness lie here? Well, tension and tenderness do not have to be focused on a single character. They can exist more abstractly and more generally, and here they are found not in an individual but in a community. Though it has its main characters, Doc and Mac, Cannery Row is, in many ways, a love song to a community, finding beauty and dignity in the downtrodden grifters of the whore houses and the empty lots without once turning a blind eye to their vices. Thus the tension lies in their sinfulness and their saintliness. They are both “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” and “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.” But, far from being opposing views of them, Steinbeck asserts, these two descriptions mean the same thing. Therein lies the essential tension that drives the whole book.

Much of the tenderness we feel comes from that tension, but there is more to it than that. Texture and tension work hand in hand and it is the texture of the place, established in the opening sentences, the “tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps,” the whorehouses and flophouses, that paint us the picture of the people who are both gamblers and martyrs, holy men and sons of bitches. We feel tender toward them because they are not statistics, not the marginalized and alienated outcasts of popular propaganda, not the reduced and the minimized, but the enlarged and the technicolor: whores and saints, angels and pimps. And for someone to be all that is already such a triumph of the spirit that we cannot help but feel tenderness for them even before we meet them or learn their names.

But there is more to it even than this, for in the phrases “as the man once said” and “Had the man looked through another peephole” we are given the sense that these are people who are being looked down on by “the man,” who are being spied on through peepholes by “the man”, and thus we feel for them the tenderness we feel for those unjustly accused and put down and spied upon. It is in such small touches, such delicate choices of expression, that tenderness is often engaged.

I have been a member of many critique groups over the years (a critique group is an association of aspiring writers who get together to read an critique each other’s work). The great thing about being a member of a critique group is that you get to read a lot of stuff that does not work, the sort of stuff that would never get published because it just does not have that thing yet, does not create that wholeness of experience that engages the reader and makes them want to read on.

When you are trying to figure out what makes something as complex as a novel or a story work, it is obviously useful to read the best examples you can. But sometimes the very completeness of the good stuff makes it hard to find the seams and to figure out exactly what is going on, what the ingredients are that make it work so particularly well and how exactly they go together. When you experience the incompleteness of the not-good-yet stuff in a critique group, it gives you the opportunity to try to figure out exactly what is missing. This in turn gives you a tool kit for analyzing your own work to figure out what may be missing, and what you need to be sure to include as you write. I’m finding this notion of tension, texture, and tenderness useful for me as I work. I would be interested to know how it strikes other people.

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