Today my friend Allison takes the wheel and steers us into tension filled waters.
When Dan asked if I would write a guest post, I had two thoughts:
Can I sneak a gif into it, and
What would be an interesting topic?
In April, I participated in the Blogging A-Z challenge, which evolved into a writing strategy book called S is for Story. Seeing as there was one topic per letter, some topics that are useful to writers were left out. One of those is tension.
Tension is emotional strain a reader feels when reading the story.
It’s what happens when they worry about the character and have to stay up until three in the morning to find out.
And being the mean authors that we are, we can layer tension to make the story even more gripping. There are a few ways to do that.
1. Add dramatic irony
Dramatic irony happens when the reader knows something the characters don’t, and the consequence for the characters not knowing is disaster. The unknowing protagonist is walking down a hallway to where we know the monster lurks, and being readers, we can do nothing to stop it!
The easiest way to include dramatic irony is to split point of view (POV) between more than one character. Character 1 sets something up over here, but Character 2 doesn’t know that and could mess everything up for Character 1. Or Character 1’s actions could accidentally kill Character 2, like what happened in Jurassic Park when Ellie turned the electric fences back on and shocked Timmy to the ground.
2. The clock is ticking!
Ah, the old ticking clock trick. The bomb is about to go off! The school day is almost over! The cake is done and you’re not home to get it out of the oven!
Pitting your characters against a deadline is guaranteed tension (unless nothing bad will happen when time’s up). Not only do they have to do the Super Important Thing, they have to do it quickly. But for this to work, the reader has to know what happens if the character fails to beat the clock. I’ve seen a few stories where characters are rushing and I have no idea why. It’s not so much tense as it is annoying.
3. Failure is possible
If the characters are guaranteed a victory, we don’t have to keep reading to find out if they win. We already know they do. We might read to find out how they win, but if failure is an option, we’ll have a nagging worry that the protag might not make it. That’s kinda scary.
To make failure an option, the characters have to fail at least once in the story. Not only does this add tension for later (because they might fail again!), it gives the character more depth because we see who they really are. As one of Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling says, throw what makes your character uncomfortable at them so we know how they cope. Failure makes everyone uncomfortable.
4. Go big or go home
One of my critique partners has been after me about this one – he even has shorthand for it. GBOGH. It’s the idea that when something goes wrong, it needs to go REALLY wrong. My inclination is to keep everything “safe” for my characters (even as I’m having bad guys shoot at them or run them off the road), and safe is usually bad for stories. The stories that grip me most are those where things are so bad I can’t see how the characters could possibly succeed. Then I’m surprised when they do. Close calls and minor wounds are fine for making us nervous, but especially for important plot points, shit really needs to hit the fan.
How do YOU add tension to your stories?
Thanks for much for doing this, Allison! (Not sure if the gif worked or not and I wasn’t really gonna check to see, either.)