How to Build a Tension Machine

10 Feb
Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

There is an often-taught writing rule that backstory should be integrated into the present action. Don’t lump it altogether. Usually, this is pretty good advice, though I’ve read enough lumped backstory in excellent stories lately that I’m beginning to wonder if this rule isn’t trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem may not be chunks of backstory as much as backstory that doesn’t clearly connect to and build toward the present drama.

A good example of backstory that appears as a chunk and that also builds toward drama can be found in Jacob Appel’s story, “Einstein’s Beach House,” which first appeared in Sonora Review and is the title story of Appel’s latest story collection. You can read an excerpt from the story at Sonora Review.

How the Story Works

The story actually begins with more backstory than the excerpt shows (the excerpt picks up about two pages into the story). This story’s first paragraph is almost entirely backstory about a typo that led tourists to believe that the narrator’s house had once belonged to Alfred Einstein. In the excerpt, the section after the space break picks up on this backstory. Here is the first paragraph of it:

The two-story wood-frame bungalow at 2467 South Ocean Avenue had served my father’s family for four generations. Originally, “The Cottage” had been a “beach house”—a fashionable summer address for my great-grandparents—but after the stock market crash of ’29 forced my father’s grandfather from his Washington Square townhouse, the Scraggs took refuge on the Jersey Shore, and we’d been muddling along there ever since. I recently read in a magazine that, on average, it takes four generations to squander a large fortune; if that’s true, our family was People’s Exhibit A. My father completed our social descent when he eloped with Mama, a Jewish-atheist folk singer who’d dropped out of NYU to follow Jefferson Airplane on their West Coast tour. They’d met at Grand Central Station, on New Year’s Day, 1968, after my father absentmindedly wandered into the ladies’ restroom by mistake.

In the most literal sense, this paragraph tells backstory (or context), beginning generations before the present action begins. It’s the sort of passage that writers in a workshop might suggest cutting, but doing so would make some of the best moments in the story (the entire story, in fact) impossible to show. So, the question is how to keep the backstory and connect is to drama, which is where the readers’ interest naturally lies. That connection begins with the line about “four generations to squander a large fortune” and the narrator’s father in finalizing that “social descent” by marrying her mother.

Watch how, in the next paragraph, the story turns those two pieces of information into an opportunity for drama:

My parents had been a bad match from the get-go. Even at the age of eleven, I could sense this to be the case—and sometimes, while they were bickering, I wondered why they didn’t just get divorced. The fundamental difference between them was that, for all her superficial radicalism and musical aspirations, Mama could be ruthlessly practical when the occasion demanded it. But my father, rest his soul, teared up at Disney movies and never embraced a pipe dream that didn’t end in a pot of gold and a Nobel Prize. So the two of them argued about whether to withhold the tenant’s security deposit over a chipped mirror, and when to force Grandpa Byron into a nursing home, and even how much to tip the postman at Christmas. No decision was too trivial for a spat. At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.

The paragraph clearly describes the differences in temperament and philosophy in the father and mother. This is something that many stories do, but those differences are not the same as drama. It’s useful to think of them as a machine. Without a motor, they won’t run. They simply represent potential action. But when energy is applied (when the motor is switched on), the machine begins to work, grinding the characters together and producing sparks, tension, and drama. What is the motor? In this case, it’s Einstein’s beach house.

In a way, all of this backstory has been building the machine and the motor, and the rest of the story shows what happens when this machine is left free to run.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use backstory to build a drama-creating machine, using “Einstein’s Beach House” by Jacob Appel as a model. You can try these exercises in any order. In fact, they may make more sense in another order, so feel free to switch them around:

  1. Create the parts that will grind together. This is almost always done, as Appel shows, by bringing together characters that will, by nature, come into conflict due to their differences. The differences can be in terms of personality, age, gender, religion, politics, job, sports team affiliation, or just about anything that people form their identities around. It may be possible to write a story with two characters who are identical in every way or who always get along, no matter what, but it’s difficult to imagine. In many stories, characters that seem well matched are often revealed to be not so well suited for each other by the plot. Backstory usually serves the purpose of introducing these parts.
  2. Build the motor. This is, essentially, the plot. You’ve got two characters, but they’re still, awaiting some force to put them into motion. That force is the motor of the story. Appel uses the house and its uncertain origins. When visitors ask for tours, the narrator’s father and mother react quite differently, and those reactions supply the story’s tension. So, what motor can set your characters into motion and conflict? Regardless of what you pick, the result will probably be differing reactions, goals, and plans. The thing at the center of those reactions, goals, and plans can be anything: gold (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a tech startup (The Social Network), or a painting (The Goldfinch). It can be something desired, something necessary (food, water, shelter), or something intrusive (illness, neighbor, dog). When writing backstory, aim your introduction of the parts toward this motor.
  3. Switch on the machine. Once you have brought together the parts and motor, you can switch it on. Backstory often ends just before this machine begins running. Appel’s backstory ends with a kind of ready, set, go: “At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.” It’s clear that more will happen (the machine will create more tension) than simply slammed doors. How can you end your backstory on a similar note, summarizing the early workings of the machine in order to set up the highest tension and drama?

Good luck and have fun.

One Response to “How to Build a Tension Machine”


  1. An Interview with Jacob M. Appel | Read to Write Stories - February 12, 2015

    […] To read an excerpt from his story “Einstein’s Beach House” and an exercise on writing backstory, click here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: