One of the very first books on craft I ever read, way back at the beginning of my writing career, was Writing the Breakout Novel, by our own Donald Maass. The book is full of excellent points on improving your craft (Don isn’t paying me to say that or anything; we’ve never met, and he has no idea even that I’m currently writing this post. Actually it’s kind of fan-girl trippy for me that I started out my writing career ordering a copy of his book, and now I actually get to be a fellow contributor of his here on WU), but for me the advice that I’ve undoubtedly turned to time and time again over the years has to do with tension. As in, it should fill every page of your story. Every. Single. Page.
That was something that I struggled with while writing my first (hideously bad) attempts at novels. I could identify the main conflict in my book– the major story problem facing my characters, sure. But how to create the kind of tension that permeates every paragraph on every single page . . . that was much harder to master. Luckily, 18 books later, it has gotten much easier. Micro and macro tension techniques are so much a part of my craft toolbox that they’re almost an instinctive reflex whenever I’m crafting a scene.
But it does occasionally still happen that I’ll be working on a chapter or a scene and realize that it suddenly feels . . . flat. Or just “off” somehow. Nine times out of ten, the problem is that I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule about making sure that tension is an integral part of every single page. That happened to me just this past week during a chapter of the current book I’m working on– and though I got that chapter (I hope– we shall see when it comes to final revisions) whipped into shape and revved up the tension, I wanted to put together this reminder list for myself and anyone else who might need it of possible go-to strategies for when you know your story is lacking tension but don’t know how to fix it.
1. Conflict between characters. Your characters may need to work together to achieve the same goal– but they may have fundamentally different and conflicting ideas on how to go about it. You can create tension by having them argue about how best to proceed. It’s best– ie the most tense– when there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. There’s an almost equally great risk of success and failure whichever route they choose to go.
2. Raise the stakes. Whatever issue it is that your characters are arguing about– try to raise the stakes as much as you possibly can, so that the pressure on them to make the right decision is that much greater. Depending on the kind of story you’re crafting, it’s not always going to be possible to create a life-or-death situation with every conflict. But just think about whether there’s any way to up the negative consequences for failure– or increase the rewards for success. Your characters may be trying to develop a winning ice-cream recipe for a cooking contest (not exactly life-or-death stuff) but the prize money could be enough to allow one of the characters to leave a dead end job and open the restaurant she’s always dreamed of starting, send a child to college, etc etc.
3. Make it personal. The above conflict between characters is more about the external story challenges and circumstances. Or rather, it’s just a product of the fact that everyone is going to see the same situation a little differently. Put a group of 5 different people in a room and give them a difficult problem to solve and it’s almost a given that there will be some arguments about how best to proceed. But what if you give the characters even more personal stakes in the argument they’re having? For example, they’re not just a group of complete strangers trying to develop a winning ice cream recipe: two of the group are estranged sisters who haven’t spoken in years, and two more used to date but went through a messy break-up a year ago. Can you imagine how much richer– and more tense– the arguments between them all are going to be now?
4. Mine your protagonists’ fears. Or maybe I should say, give your protagonists fears. When you’re struggling to find the tension in a scene, you could look inside your protagonist’s head and see what phobias and/or memories she has in there that could make this particular scene or story-moment especially challenging for her to face. For example, walking across a street? Pretty boring. But what if it’s the same street where the protagonist witnessed a horrific hit-and-run accident as a child? Although not every backstory/phobia has to be that extreme. Take a woman cooking dinner for her expected date. Not very exciting. But what if the date is someone she desperately wants to impress, she knows that he’s a huge fan of perfectly prepared sushi and in order to make a good impression she’s promised him some– but even the thought of raw fish is enough to make her want to gag? Suddenly, there’s tension.
5. Secrets. Give one of your characters a secret that she’s desperate not to reveal to anyone. In the above example, the woman with the date could be desperate not to let him know how much she actually hates sushi. (You may think this is implausible, but I actually knew a wife who lovingly prepared a tuna fish sandwich for her husband for lunch every single day. Her husband was in a life-threatening skiing accident and wound up in a coma. And some of the first words he spoke after waking up were, “I HATE tuna fish!” on being offered a lunch menu at the hospital to test his reading abilities. Afraid of hurting her feelings, he’d been gagging down tuna fish sandwiches for years). In a superhero story, the hero is often forced to conceal his new-found superpowers from those closest to him. Secrets. They’re powerful ways of continuously creating a will-they-or-won’t-they-find-out pull of tension.
6. The good old man-with-a-gun. I’ve saved this one until last since it’s kind of a tricky on in that it can turn out to be clumsy and kind of cliched if it’s not done well. But Raymond Chandler famously said, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” It can work. It doesn’t (obviously) have to be a literal gun. But give your characters a sudden, direct, and very dangerous, high-stakes threat, and you’ll certainly increase the tension.
Those are a few of my favorite tension-creating strategies.
What about you? What do you do when you feel like a scene or a section of your book is starting to drag?