Keep your character’s feet to the flames! One of my writing mentors used to say. Writers often hear that tension and/or conflict is a key to good writing. But how?
Writing Tip for Today: Tension/conflict hooks readers faster than almost anything. What are some easy ways to add tension to your fiction?
Your character should want something, right away. But can her desire pass the “So What?” test? To start with, if the character wants to marry a guy, she must want this MORE THAN ANYTHING. But wait. A personal need is great, but can you make it bigger? What if what your character wants will impact the entire family? The community? The world? Even if it’s a simple romance, by making one character care deeply about another person AND about something going on around him, you up the stakes and increase reader sympathies. Today’s readers won’t settle for a story which revolves only around two people. If there are repercussions that ripple out from the personal and bleed into things that involve our communities or even impact us globally, those ripples build reader sympathies. Author and literary agent Donald Maass has a great discussion about building high stakes in Writing the Breakout Novel. If you can make readers care about the story on more than one level it should be harder for them to disengage from your story.
Wait! I can Explain!
Tension in stories arises from a desperate want which is thwarted or threatened by some sort of obstacle. The trouble is, when writers create this tension, we often can’t resist the urge to explain what we’ve just shown in scenes. I think this urge to explain arises when writers want to over-control the reader’s reactions and conclusions. Afraid readers might interpret conflict differently, we often “tell” or add a little explanation after an excellent showing. You might ask yourself what will be different about the story’s outcome if you remove these explanations. If something vital to the story is misinterpreted, the fix may be as simple as using more active sentence constructions or active, specific verbs. For example, if you write, “She walked slowly toward her fate,” you could substitute “She trudged toward her fate.” If the explained detail doesn’t really matter or it’s already been shown, try to relax. Does it really matter if the character raises her right or left hand? If the rope was seventeen and three tenths centimeters long? Does your reader really need to know the character’s history right then, or could it be leaked slowly and on a need-to-know basis? In most cases, where you’ve shown, RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.
Gut Wrenching Emotions Allowed
Finally, an easy way to add or maintain story tension is to allow the character’s emotions to come alive on the page. By that I mean going beyond taking out “ly” words to substitute physical manifestations of emotions, such as balled fists, clenched jaws or knitted eyebrows. In order to let readers experience three-dimensional emotions, you will need to become the character. Zoom the camera in and think as the character thinks, with as much at stake as the character has for the goal. If you only care a little, your reader will only care a little. By throwing your whole self into the character as if your life depended on it, you’ll communicate the story’s emotions in ways that grab readers and keep them glued to your story.