Tension I’ve read a few submissions in the past couple of years that while beautifully written and psychologically or philosophically interesting were almost entirely without suspense. There was no tension driving the plot, no overarching conflict to keep the reader on the edge of his/her seat and turning those pages late into the night. In the end I had to decline representation, because I knew they wouldn’t sell, and if they did, it wouldn’t be in sufficient numbers to build a career.

So today I want to talk about that conflict and how you can pump it up. Whether you’re writing a romance where the primary tension is whether the hero and heroine’s issues will keep them from finding true love or a science fiction epic about the overthrow of an evil empire, a good novel needs three things. The reader must:

a) fear that the protagonists might fail
b) understand the very real danger of that failure
c) care deeply about the outcome

In order for the reader to do any of these things, of course, the author must plot out:

a) what’s at stake
b) what form will their adversity take (conflicts both internal and external)
c) what face evil will wear

There’s rarely a one-word answer for what’s at stake, since there will need to be tension throughout the book, and a single note will start falling on deaf ears. Let’s take a pretty straightforward plot for example…a hostage story. The main goal will be to get the hostages out alive. The consequences of that failure are obvious, and if the author makes the reader care about the characters, so is the emotional investment in the outcome. However, things need to happen during the story to make us believe in this danger—not just the “If not this, then that,” as in “If we don’t get the money, we start killing.” Obstacles need to be thrown in the way of the this which threaten to precipitate the that. For example, legalities probably prohibit actually giving the hostage-takers what they want. So people will try to go about things another way. They’ll call a negotiator. Maybe that negotiator is having a bad day, and personal issues threaten the negotiation. Maybe he or she doesn’t make it to the scene or the baddies refuse to communicate or they’re all really just playing for time. Maybe the negotiation is going well, but someone with a gun gets impatient and threatens to blow that out of the water. The important thing is that things go wrong. If everything goes well, according to plan, there’s not much tension, there’s no suspense and the ending is a foregone conclusion. And what about the victims? Is one in need of medication? In danger of doing something stupid that might get the others killed? In league with the baddies? Any of these wrinkles will add character to the face of adversity. You don’t want to end up with a featureless, forgettable face, but one with character, stamped with tragedy and triumphs.

Yes, I said triumphs. Just as things have to go wrong, sometimes things have to go right. A piece of the puzzle falls into place or someone is able to signal someone else. Things have to go more and more wrong, but the good guys must have more means to fight back, otherwise the inequality of power will make any end triumph unconvincing.

I’ve been talking about the shape of a book like a face, the kind that will be indelibly imprinted in your memory, but let’s talk about it on a smaller scale as well. No matter what twists or turns you present, if we don’t care about the characters, it all falls apart. So those hostages, those heroes and your villains all need faces, and not just in the physical sense. What do they want? What’s at stake for them personally. I realized recently in the current novel that I’m writing that I don’t know what my villain wants. Power, certainly, but to what end? Is it enough for your bad guy to want power or money or revenge? Maybe. But how much more intriguing and layered is it if they want that power for a purpose, whether it be an ideal or some secondary goal. Same with money or revenge. What would Star Wars have been without the face of Darth Vader? Or, since we’ve been talking about hostage situations, what about Die Hard’s Hans Gruber?

I could go on and on, of course, about tension, conflict, obstacles, stakes, etc., but here’s an exercise for you: take your favorite action book or movie—not just a shoot-‘em-up, of course, but something with substance—and make a note for yourself of every goal, every obstacle, every win and every loss. See how each chapter or act presents a new challenge or overcomes one. Think about how you can incorporate that into your own writing.

That’s right, I give all the best homework.


6 comments to Tension

  • Whew! That’s one heck of a homework assignment! I think I’ll take each chapter of the WIP I’m revising and work through that instead! 😉

    Thanks for a nice little breakdown of what creates tension from both the reading and writing standpoint. I often find that just seeing the articulation of a concept I subconsciously understand really helps me to focus on it as an controllable element of the story.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for this break down. Definitely great food-for-thought, especially as I’m often in danger of letting things get a little to nebulous in my WIP. Now I have some concrete elements to keep in mind!

  • I’m so glad you both found this useful! I have a tendency to let my characters run away with me, so I have to be ever careful to keep the tension up and the conflicts moving right along.

  • Thank you for the fun but challenging homework assignment. Perfect timing for my WIP. Funny you mentioned not knowing your antagonist very well, I’m in the midst of “relearning” my protagonist. Better late than never. Off to work on keeping the conflicts rolling along. Happy writing!

    Stephanie Jarkins
    twitter: skjarkins

  • I’ll be a rebel by following the crowd. I’ll use my WIP instead, as I’ve nothing in my mind but NanoWrimo, hence my WIP. So hmm, tension and conflict.
    My main characters just landed in jail with a charge of treason, a capital offense. That’s kinda bad. That’s after barely escaping an orbital particle beam weapon, and a big one at that.
    Oh, and there’s a love triangle…and one of the ones involved just died. Kinda hard for the other two to get together right after that, even if they do have feelings for one another.

    Oh, and my protagonist just had years of emotional boundaries torn down by a direct cyber-link with her unrequited love interest.

    Some of the conflict is pretty shallow. Just typical cyberpunk action thriller stuff. But I think the relationship aspects have potential.

    Now back to planning a jailbreak, and the destruction of every computer, power, and communication facility in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Razziecat

    As I near the end of NaNo (a little ahead of the daily wordcount, whoohoo!) I find this very applicable to my WIP. I have a tendency to go easy on the characters, when it would be much better for the story to let ’em have it with both barrels. I’m going to come back to this post when I’ve finished the story and use it as a guide to see where I need to ratchet up the tension.