Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Making Things Tense

Late at night, one of my friends looked up from staring into space and said in a dull, unemotional voice, “Oh no. Stuff is happening.”

That’s not how you want readers to view your story. Stuff should happen – but it should be interesting stuff. I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the main reasons I read fiction: because my life is boring and the lives of fictional characters are not.

I don’t want to read about someone waking up to an alarm clock. I know what that’s like. Now, if your character wakes up to a phone call that tells her to go to her porch and look outside, then I’d be interested. What’s she going to find? An abandoned child? A dozen roses from a secret admirer? A dead skunk? An ax murderer?

Some writers have a great beginning and a great climax, but in between, things sag back down into the mundane. Here are some ideas of things to add to amp up the tension in the middle of your story.

  • Road blocks: Something or someone keeps the character from getting closer to the goal (The girl is grounded for a month the week before prom, the hero loses the treasure map, a snowstorm keeps the character from getting to the hospital)
  • Shiny objects: Something or someone distracts the character from the goal (the captain sees his worst enemy on the sidelines during the big game, the spy falls in love, the class clown joins the debate team right before the championship)
  • Ejection levers: Someone or something that helped the character is no longer helping him/her (the band can’t stop fighting, the parents don’t want their daughter to become a missionary, the car breaks down)
  • Time bombs: Something happens that gives the character a limited about of time to accomplish the goal (oxygen is running out, the store will close in an hour, Christmas is only three days away)
  • Car chases: The antagonist (usually the antagonist is an actual person) actively tries to hurt/kill/steal from the character to keep him/her away from goal (girl trying out for swim team gets anonymous threats, tires on getaway car are all slashed, the superhero’s girlfriend has been kidnapped)
If you notice, some of the examples I’ve given aren’t dramatic in the typical sense of an epic adventure or fast-paced action movie. You don’t have to literally blow things up or light things on fire to create and interesting story. All you need is tension: your main character can’t get what he or she is trying so hard to get.

So the next time you’re tempted to start a chapter with an alarm, think again.

Unless the alarm clock is actually a time bomb in disguise. That could work.

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