How might you go about this? Do you have any examples of things you've either read or written in the past that create tension successfully? I was recently told that a piece I submitted lacked tension and while I understand the criticism intellectually I'm having a hard time putting it into practice during the rewrite. Thanks in advance.
I've heard someplace that conflict is the source of tension. A story needs some form of dramatic conflict, i.e. one character wanting something and another individual/force of nature/whatever stands in his or her way. If your story is lacking tension, go back to the start and ask questions like "what does this character want?" and "what's stopping them from getting it?".
Note that there are more subtle forms of conflict as well, i.e. a person struggling with personal demons, but that this is still conflict nonetheless.
I've posted two stories here. One, I'm told, does a good job of building and keeping tension. The other, not so much.
Donald Maass says in his wonderful book Writing the Breakout Novel that there should be tension on every page, whether physical or emotional. He advocates raising the stakes, public and personal.
First, what's your protag's motivation? What's he going after? Is he trying to save a life, his own life? Is he searching for change, physically, emotionally, mentally, financially or spiritually? Next, ask: What does your protag stand to lose if he doesn't succeed in attaining his goal? You'll need high human worth. If your protag only stands to lose something that won't alter his life in a profound way, then your readers won't care about your character. What is his/her human worth? Honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness, bravery, respect, trust and love are all measures of high human value. They are also the keys to making stakes count. Stakes work on two levels: Public and personal.
Public stakes are stakes that society as a whole may lose. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. Making public stakes real starts with a grain of truth in the premise. It grows with detaling that lends the threat high plausibility. Mystery and suspense novels are prime examples of public stakes. Silence of the Lambs is a great example.
Personal stakes dig down into the character so far they show us who we are. Making the protag's needs and wants matter to the reader is the key to personal stakes. Your character's stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. A strong and appealing character will yield higher personal stakes. Make your readers care about your character and the personal stakes will raise, in turn raising reader interest.
Here's a quick checklist of stakes found in Writing the Breakout Novel:
1. High stakes yield high success
2. Stakes say what could be lost
3. To test stakes ask, "So what?"
4. High stakes start with high human worth
5. Making public stakes real means starting with a grain of truth
6. Breakout novels combine high public stakes with high personal stakes
7. Deep personal stakes dig down so far that they show us who we are
8. Public stakes change with the times
9. To raise personal stakes ask, "How can this matter more?"
10. To raise overall stakes ask, "How could things get worse?"
11. Keep danger immediate. Make your characters suffer
12. High stakes come from your own stakes in writing your story
Hope this helped in some way. I know it's a quick outline, but it may give you some ideas of how to create more tension/conflict in your story. I'd highly recommend picking up a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel.
That's an excellent post Ryan. I'm gonna order that book just now because tension is something I don't entirely understand either.
*EDIT* I just looked it up on Amazon and it reads a bit like a How to...book.
I already tried How to sleep yourself rich and How to make yourself interesting to women and neither worked, so I'm a bit sceptical.
Thanks Bruno. It's one book I constantly refer back to. A lot of the examples in the book are from mystery and suspense novels, but the techniques can be applied to any genre. There's also a workbook that accompanies it.
Tension: the magic trick!
Introduce Problem 1.
Introduce Problem 2.
Solve Problem 1 and introduce Problem 3.
Introduce Problem 4.
Introduce Problem 5.
Solve Problem 3.
Solve Problem 4.
Solve Problem 5.
Solve Problem 2.
That's like Algebra meets Absalom! Absalom!
You've solved Faulkner in five easy steps you genius you.
I want to thank my team of researchers, without whom I couldn't have made it this far.
In dialogue you can work tension with a contrast between what's being said and the subtext.
Also, setting up scenes so that the reader expects a certain outcome, and then throwing something unexpected into the mix.
One of my favourite novels, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, has characters having two different conversations with each other (I loaned it out so I'm paraphrasing).
"So, Lionel, when are you going to get married?"
"The manager at the store said he's looking to promote someone."
"Because you aren't getting any younger."
"And I've already worked there for three years. I know the business really well."
"Have you met my cousin's daughter Shirley?"
"My sales have been slipping, but I don't think that's important for a management position."
"We can pick her up on the way home."
Put your character in an uncomfortable position they aren't ready to deal with either physically or emotionally, make them squirm. Think of the things that cause you tension in real life, use them to your advantage and apply necessary exaggeration.
*EDIT* I just looked it up on Amazon and it reads a bit like a How to...book
- Far from a How to book. Like any other book on writing, it gives techniques, suggestions and ideas. Are you sure you weren't looking at the workbook?
Thanks to Rian and Phil for their posts. Phil's might seem a touch simplistic (the first one), but it's actually pretty spot on. A character with only one problem tends to be a bit boring. So many more avenues of development, not to mention opportunities to create tension, from a whole series of problems.
I like simple rules of thumb. They're there to keepin in mind and tweak as needed. My "magic trick" is just a rough formalization of how suspense works in general, and it's silly, but I'd bet it's not far off from the typical way thriller writers operate.
@Phil - It's really not. There's some guy out there, I forget his name, who has some suspense/thriller novels published, as well as a fairly widely read tension formula called The Snowflake Method. It's not so dissimilar to your rule of thumb.
See, man! I should make a living out of this. The Rule of Thumb Guy.
You could have a help column like Ann Landers, only yours would have to have a disclaimer: Leave your feelings at the proverbial door. Phil is not Ann fucking Landers.
"like" Ann Landers, only really nothing like that except for the fact that they both have columns.
Haha. I'm going to kick the ass of every lazy writer out there, my friend.
Also, I have a massive announcement to make, and I can't make it yet, but it's going to interest so many LitReactor people that it's making me edgy. That's why I'm keepig myself busy posting this nonsense.
Jesus, I'm not coming out of the closet, am I?
Well, that's up to you. My announcement is probably less personal than that.
Oh. Whew. That's a load off.
Then again, if you're not going to do it for me I'd have to do it myself. The stress! Think I'll just remain repressed and dishonest with myself.
Apparently it's normal to question your sexuality at some point in your young adulthood. I kind of feel ilke I've missed out on an interesting phase. I always assumed I was straight and haven't been disappointed. But that kind of questioning, of self-doubt about something so personal, must be educational if nothing else.
So anyway, is there an appointed time for you to make your big reveal, or will it just kinda be a surprise?
I just need to iron out some kinks in the plan and find a polite way of stopping people from immediately PMing me when I make the announcement. But trust that it will be interesting at least.
Autographed copies of your book???
Well you can rest assured that I won't PM you. I cannot abide a Dan Brown hater.
I'll send him two PMs to pick up the slack.
@ Phil: My favourite rule of thumb
Was what you told me the big announcement or is it something else?
Something else entirely.
Phil, I like the way this is doubling as a practical example in how to create tension.
Tension, hollywood style:
Add a bomb to the scene.
Tell your reader how long the timer is.
Start it ticking.
Normal stuff happens, but it's still ticking.
Normal stuff is in the middle of resolving.
Boom, crazy announcement?
@Phil: So has this strategy worked, or are you being bombarded by people sending you curious PMs? If you want, I can start a "Please do not PM Phil about his extra-special announcement (Utah is not coming out of the closet)" thread.
I'm just confirming a few things and then I'll make the announcement. No PMs yet, thank God. And come on, man, you'll have to face your feelings about men eventually.
But not today, Phil. NOT TODAY!
I am so sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself.
Does the secret have to do with the website
Does the secret have to do with that horse in the background? Are you writing a western novel? You've convinced Cormac McCarthy to do a class for LitReactor? You've become a recruiter for the US Army?
Shhhh.... You aren't supposed to ask.....
No. I'm not supposed to PM.
If you want, I could *get* our friend Cormac if you want. You'd have to pay travel expenses and buy/rent the following items:
*50 Tranq darts
A Jeep, helicopter or private plane, preferably two of three.
Around 100 ft of thick rope
Haha. Awesome, Avery.
No, the reason I'm not telling yet is that I need to hear back from other people before I can make it official. I want to tell you. But there's other considerations, too.
Also, this picture pretty much adds nothing to the thread, but look at it! Look at the surreal beauty of the combination of objects!
I get it. You ran out of ketchup. You really wanted some ketchup. Now an aborigine forshadows the doom of your anger by banging on a death-drum. While Bugs Bunny fucks with stuff and generally doesn't much give a shit.
I get it. The whole 'I have a secret' thing is demonstrating the creation of tension. Once that point is established, everything you post is viewed in relation to the premise. Is the bottle significant? Just a red herring? Just ate some herring covered in ketchup?
...tiki god ate my ketchup....
Does all ketchup in the US say "Dinner For Fun" on it? That is weird.
I don't recall ever seeing that on my ketchup. I think that might be some special UK ketchup.
Not all of it. Heinz thinks they are clever and they put different little sayings on their bottles.
Weird. I think Canada got screwed with the boring bottles that just say "Tomato Ketchup".