A student wanted me to discuss tension in scene writing. Maintaining tension between what the protagonist wants (or thinks she wants) and what thwarts or is elusive is key to keeping readers engaged. The student asks, “Is there any place for a sympathetic, comforting character interacting with the protagonist?” The answer is yes. What brings tension into a scene is not the fact that the antagonist is there making things difficult or that someone is yelling or being unpleasant. Although you don’t want to write too many scenes of “relief” or comfort, sometimes they can show how high the stakes really are. You don’t write a scene for instance, where the “relief” character and the protagonist go shopping for the day to get their minds off trouble, and then they never once think of the stakes involved. Those scenes you leave out. On the other hand you might show them shopping together but the protagonist worries about her problem, how much to reveal to the other character, etc. That’s psychologiacl/emotional conflict/tension. Inner conflict, in other words. If they are shopping and meet Miss Fuzzbottom, the obstacle, then that’s outer or physical conflict/tension. Outer conflict. A good story needs both. This pulls the story threads forward. Unfortunately, it isn’t usually OK to include scenes solely because they are funny, heartwarming or informative unless they deal with the story or its subplots.
Writing Tip for Today: The same student also wanted to know if there is a magic formula (like the Rule of Three) for the different types of tensions (emotional, psychological, etc) in a complex story. I’d hesitate to say there is, but it’s a good idea for the inner and outer conflicts to be somewhat balanced in the story.