Ask yourself these questions: Do I wish for my readers to experience quiet, peace, placidity, and calm? Or, do I wish for my readers’ experience to be intense? I suspect I know your answer. Who does not want their novel to be intense?
A couple of weeks ago, guest contributor Gaëtane Burkolter introduced us to her Excite-O-Meter, a tool to chart the intensity of her WIP. It’s a graph with the horizontal axis representing each chapter and the vertical axis measuring intensity on a scale of zero to one hundred. The line produced is a visual picture of her novel’s rising (one hopes) level of intensity.
But what exactly is intensity? What causes the action of a novel to provoke that feeling in characters, readers and authors? How is intensity produced on the page, so that readers feel it? How is it generated by authors within themselves on any given writing day?
When most of us think of intensity, we probably think of experiencing what is extreme. That’s not wrong. Extreme action can be intense. Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity (1995) is a good example. It’s the story of graduate student Chyna Shepherd who is recovering from an abusive childhood. Her weekend visit with the family of her lifelong friend Laura Templeton, however, turns into a violent nightmare. Serial killer Edgler Vess breaks in at night and kills everyone except Laura, whom he abducts, and Chyna, who stows away on Vess’s motor home.
The story that follows is about as horrifying as they get. I’ll spare you, or save for you, the lurid and violent details, but there are two points to note. First is that Vess (modeled on real life serial killer Edmund Kemper) kills in order to experience “intensity”. Second is that Chyna is able to endure and defeat Vess because she, thanks to her abusive childhood, has a greater tolerance for intensity than he. Trust me, the read is quite intense.
In science, intensity is a measure of power per unit area (physics), such as radiant heat flux (heat transfer), or field strength (electromagnetism). It can also be luminous intensity (optics), radiance (astronomy), or peak ground acceleration (as in earthquakes, geology). In other words, intensity is when force is packed tightly into something. It’s not the object itself but its effect. In writing terms, that means that intensity isn’t action per se, it’s the effect that any given story moment has on us.
Violence can be intense but it’s not the only way to produce the effect of intensity. In psychological terms, intensity is a high degree of emotional excitement. Over-excitability used to be seen as a personality problem, but is now understood not as a cause but a consequence of something else; a consequence that can be constructive, in important ways forming and strengthening personality instead of impairing it.
Psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration explains, among other things, the extreme excitability of gifted children. Once seen as hyperactive, distractible, disruptive, immature and oppositional, Dabrowski and later researchers revealed that such children are instead high energy, imaginative, passionate, sensitive and creative. They react more quickly and intensely, moved by inner forces that generate over-stimulation.
That’s true in all healthy personality formation. Conflict and pain lead to an inner collapse or “disintegration”, which in turn builds stronger personality based on an individual’s values. The result is autonomy, or what informally we would call maturity. Grown up, if not gifted, individuals are curious and driven to challenge conformity, complacency and self-satisfaction.
Does that sound like a guideline to creating great protagonists? It may well be. Protagonists in general do not easily conform. They do not run from conflict but face it. They do not experience emotions in the muted, contained and safe way in which most of us must in order to get along in life. Protagonists are passionate, principled and large in their feelings. They don’t get along. They are excitable. They are intense.
Thus, creating intensity in fiction starts with creating protagonists whose emotional excitability is above average; characters who react and respond to things in a larger way than most of us would. Second, it means packing scenes with material that produces a strong response, both in characters and in readers. Third, it means bringing your own excitability into the moment as you write.
Let’s look at a couple of practical ways to get at what we’re talking about.
- Choose a scene. What in this scene stirs your POV character to a greater than usual indignation, affront or anger? What threatens his or her sense of safety, propriety or rightness? How could this element become even more disruptive? Give it an extra cutting edge. Make it a trigger. Push your character’s response out of bounds.
- Chose any point in your story. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? What can you take away? How can you punish unfairly? What would be greatly humiliating? Who can disparage your protagonist? How can he or she do self-harm? Spring a surprise that is devastating. Twist it to make it even worse.
- Chose another point in your story. What’s the best thing that could happen to your protagonist? What unexpected gift can you give? What unexpected reward? What would be encouraging? Who can believe in your protagonist when no one else does? What courage or resourcefulness can your protagonist summon? Spring a surprise that is wonderful. Add something to it to make it even better.
- Choose any page in your manuscript. What on this page relaxes or relieves tension? Eliminate that.
- Your story world is a place where things can happen that do not happen in real life. What’s one? What’s another? What’s the most extreme thing? What are you waiting for?
- What produces in you high emotion? What makes you want to cry? What reduces you to mush or rubble? What makes you speechless with anger? What makes you want to murder? Make that happen not just in your manuscript, but in your pages today.
Intensity is an achievable effect. It makes for exciting action. It tears characters apart and builds them back up. It gives readers a high experience. It challenges you to be a greater storyteller. The effect, though, comes not from characters or events. It’s not a function of plot, arc or voice. It’s the result of your own commitment, passion and courage. Your novel is intense not because it is, but because you are.
Pack it in. Make heat. Be radiant. Shake the ground. Shake us up. Shake yourself up. Get intense. Don’t worry, it will make us stronger. We’ll be okay.
How is your story getting intense today? How are you?