We all know that tension and conflict are essential to an interesting plot, but sometimes stories just start to feel that little bit melodramatic. They take themselves so seriously and every little thing is a major drama for all the characters. Or a character enters the story – about a third of the way through – and their only real purpose seems to be that the middle of the story was getting boring and someone decided that they needed more tension to keep it moving. This can work if the problems caused by this character somehow link back into the central conflict, or it can feel like an add-in if the character comes, antagonizes people for awhile, and then when the story gets moving again, miraculously either has a change of heart or disappears.
There is virtually no end to the list of different ways you can add tension to a story. Sometimes those seemingly simplistic moments can become very tense (and not in an overly dramatic way when handled well). As a reader, these are my five favourite ways that authors introduce tension for their characters:
1. A secret is uncovered and the character is trying to prevent the knowledge from spreading. I always like intrigues and character dilemmas. You always wonder just how far is this character going to go to keep this a secret. And when the secret is revealed, how will they react? Admittedly, as a reader I like to be in on the secret and then the fun is seeing if the other characters in the story catch on.
2. Forced waits. I’m going to confess that I love this as a plot device because in real life this is what causes the most tension. You know what is coming, you know what you need to do, everything is progressing and then it all just stalls. You can really relate to the characters as they get frustrated and impatient and desperate to act while others use the time for further preparations and others still simply work themselves into a bundle of nerves.
3. Rivalry. It may be a cliché but I do love rivals when they are both well established characters and their both given a fair showing. The play between the two as they try to one-up the other, while not admitting that they care what the other thinks, can make for an intriguing and interesting story and can also create some really interesting tensions between the other characters as they realise what is happening.
4. RAS (Random Acts of Stupidity). Everybody is stupid at one point or another and when a character has clearly done something incredibly dumb, I like that to be addressed by the other characters, rather than simply ignored because it is convenient to the story. This can create really interesting group dynamics and the tension in the scene where someone confronts the character about their action can be excellently executed.
5. Anticipation. I remember reading a book in high-school (don’t remember which one) where a girl was having her thumb chopped off (various political reasons leading up to it). But they announced this at the beginning of the chapter. Guy has hold of the girl, blade drawn. She’s crying. Then someone else comes in and there is discussion and another speech and they keep coming back to this girl who has tears streaming down her face. The whole chapter you’re wondering – are they actually going to do this? Is she going to get away or be released? If they had made me wait to the next chapter to find out I probably would have given up reading the book because essentially nothing would have happened in the chapter, but this book was brilliantly executed. Just when you couldn’t take any more and you had to know, the answer is revealed and then the chapter ended.
What are your favourite kinds of tension to read? Or to create for the writers out there.
I’m participating in a blog hop set up by Alex J. Canauagh today. The question being – if I could only round up 12 films which 12 would I choose.
Tricky question and I had to really think about this and in the end I decided to go with the idea that I was going to be stuck in isolation for the rest of forever. Which movies did I have to take and what combination?
I decided to start with the child-hood classics.
1. The Dark Crystal – Jim Henson at his finest. An epic fantasy tale told with muppets with some of the most interesting characters I ever met as a child. I love Kira and her matter-of-fact nature as well as her ability to talk to pretty much any animal with a reasonable expectation of being answered.
2. Willow – Again, epic fantasy. This time it is a combination of Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer who are the defnitely draw though the shield bob-sled over snow we probably could have done without. Fairies, trolls, witches, prophesise, what more could a movie want?
3. The Princess Bride – Because it is awesome. Fantasy and romance and action and adventure all rolled into one very entertaining story.
Moving on some old favourites.
4. Indiana Jones (If I’m not allowed the entire trilogy I choose Temple of Doom – though many fans think that this is the weak link) – With the exception of the Crystal Skull (which I still maintain is not Indiana Jones) these movies are incredibly fun, action packed and scenic.
5. Clash of the Titans – The original. Clunky stop-go animation but that vulture is hilarious and this was my gate-way to Greek mythology. Can’t be without this one.
6. The Trouble with Harry – Hitchcock at his most amusing. I just like the twisted sense of humour.
The B-Grade Collection – I have this thing for really bad horror movies.
7. Tremors – If I can have all four of the movies I will, but otherwise I would have to choose the second one. Underground monsters that get smarter by the minute and eat anything that moves. A great laugh with one or two jumps thrown in (just so you remember it was sort of supposed to be a horror).
8. Ginger Snaps – Possibly the best werewolf movie I have ever watched and yet you end up laughing more than being scared by this coming of age movie mixed with horror. I will say that the scariest thing in this movie is Ginger’s mother (creepy).
9. Scream – This one was a toss up between The Faculty and Scream but Scream came out on top for two reasons. One – it gave us one of the best quotes from a bad villain ever: “My mum and dad are going to be so mad at me”. The second reason is that they made sure the last hurrah wasn’t dragged out. Short and sweet and done.
Finally, the feel good movies.
10. Elizabeth Town – Most people will hate this choice. Yes, it is Orlando Bloom. Yes, it does start with him trying to commit suicide. Yes, it mostly deals with a funeral. It is light and amusing and by the road trip at the end you are genuinely feeling good about yourself. This is what I want in a movie when I need cheering up.
11. 10 Things I Hate About You – An updated take on the Taming of the Shrew and my introduction to Heath Ledger, I love this movie. It is well done and uplifting.
12. Just Like Heaven – I needed at least one genuine, sickly sweet movie on this list. This is my choice.
You should head over to Alex’s blog and check out the rest of the blog hop.
I’m going to admit it. I’m becoming very critical.
I’ve always been critical – particularly of myself – but lately I’ve been really critical of a lot of things.
Today I was given a short story to read. The purpose of the story was to demonstrate how to use descriptive language to create an emotional affect in the reader. Possibly it succeeded in that but the only emotional affect it had on me was the desire to grab a red pen and have at it – I managed to resist the urge but barely.
So what was wrong with the story?
Every single person or thing in the story was described by at least two adjectives in almost every single instance. Every single time. I’m sorry. The person is whistling. Sure, you can tell us how they are whistling and what it sounds like but the next time you feel the need to mention it you could just say whistling. You don’t then need to come up with two new adjectives (or an adverb and an adjective) to describe how the whistling is happening.
Objects were appearing ‘out of nowhere’. Umm, no. Unless they were tearing through interdimensional portals I’m pretty sure they came from somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t an important somewhere but to explicitly state they came from out of nowhere just leads the reader to wonder how that is even possible.
Characters were behaving out of character – which in a short story is really distracting because you don’t even have the benefit of later explaining the out of characterness (I know that isn’t a word).
I’ll admit it. I’m awful and I’m tearing this story to threads. And it lead me to realise some of the weaknesses I still have in my own writing. I like adjectives (not to this extent but I over use them to be sure). I may not have things appearing out of nowhere but I’m sure I suddenly have people in scenes where they shouldn’t be and have no logical reason to be and I’m sure I need to work on it. I need to turn this critical eye away from things I’m reading and apply it to things I’m writing and I need to look at what I could be doing instead.
Plenty of areas here for me to work on. What are you working on improving?
I’ve finally come to Traci Harding. I would have done her first but unfortunately whenever I talk to people who read very few of them have read Traci Harding and that is a shame. She became my absolute favourite author of all time when I was in high school and even though I have not particularly liked her later work, I still think her Ancient Future Trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I have ever read.
What did I love about the Ancient Future Trilogy?
- The protagonist. Tori Alexander is an amazing female protagonist. She is confident, strong (she’s a black belt), smart (multiple university degrees), funny, romantic and yet flawed in that she is overly emotional, stubborn and extremely proud. As a high school student she really appealed because her flaws were kind of endearing and she was just an incredible person to read about. Here is a girl who can get zapped through time (multiple times) and always lands on her feet and wins the heart of the really, really hunky guy who just happens to be a King. She’s also an Australian who just happens to be travelling around England when she goes time travelling,
- The setting – A time travel fantasy where they go back to the days of knights and kings but they don’t end up in Camelot. There are a lot of references to the kingdom, there are parallels, but this is not an Arthurian legend and it was nice to read something a little bit different because at the time it seemed like every second fantasy book I read was about Arthur and friends.
- The supporting cast – All the characters in this story are kind of interesting. The fact that you meet several incarnations of the same soul in several different time zones means you see how the soul has developed and grown overtime and you get a real insight into each of the characters by the time we reach the end of the trilogy. There are only a couple of characters who seem to get sidelined and really leave you wanting to know more about them.
- The time travel – I usually really dislike time travel stories because they tie themselves in knots and you are always left wondering how it works its way out. Traci Harding create a time travel story that for once kind of makes sense though by the third book she’s kind of skating over the details very quickly and her explanations may not hold up under scientific analysis but there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies just jumping out and hitting you in the face and disrupting the storyline.
- The ending – and I will not ruin the end of the trilogy for anyone but if you want to experience an end of the world scenario that is truly incredible, this is the trilogy for you.
Now, even though it is my favourite trilogy of all time and I fully recommend reading it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, romance, spirituality, strong female characters, etc, etc, I do have to acknowledge some of the issues with the trilogy.
- The language – I do not care what Tori Alexander studied at university you are never going to convince me that anyone living in modern Australia can speak ancient Welsh proficiently enough to communicate with people when travelling back in time. Admittedly, the story would kind of be awful if Tori couldn’t speak to anyone (mostly because she would have been killed within minutes of arriving back in time) but with so much magic and spells flying around later in the story, I would have bought translation spell as an explanation before linguistic genius.
- Repetition – The reader understands fairly quickly that underpinning this relatively simple story about a girl travelling in time there is this deep spiritual story about mastering your soul and acceptance of others view points and natural energy flows and all of these other ideas which are working well together to create a rich and interesting story. However the same concepts are explained multiple ways throughout the trilogy and at times you want to cut the character off and tell them “I already got that in the last book”. Actually, you don’t notice the repetition so much the first time you read the trilogy but the sixth or seventh time it starts to become a bit more obvious.
- The second book – It is always the second book of a trilogy that feels like it is marking time and filling in details and the second book of this trilogy is no different. Tori gets to visit Atlantis, which is kind of cool, except that the people in Atlantis are so spiritual and sweet and dull you are kind of happy when everything starts falling apart.
So, writing lessons learned from reading Traci Harding:
- Have an incredible protagonist – one that really draws people into the story. They don’t have to be perfect and they don’t always have to make the right decision but they need to be interesting and appealing.
- Put the extra work into the supporting characters. The reader will appreciate it.
- If writing a trilogy, spend the extra time on the second book and figure out how to avoid the curse of the middle book. It may not be possible but try anyway.
We often look at creating tension in stories and you think about all the possible problems a character could face and things that could just go horribly wrong all to create a scene that has escalating tension until finally we resolve something or explode. Well, I don’t think anyone has exploded from tension yet but you get the idea. I was wondering the other day what makes me tense in real life and I came to the conclusion that waiting is my killer.
People being rude to me is annoying but I get over it pretty quick.
People getting in the way of something I want to do is also pretty easy to either get around or get over.
catastrophic failure of a plan happens and then you make a new plan and move on.
But waiting. Sitting and having to wait for a designated time for something to happen and then it not starting and having to wait more, that is what makes me very, very tense. Forced inactivity. I can’t move on and do something else because I have to wait and I can’t make what I’m waiting for happen any faster.
Some would see this as a sign that I am an impatient person. This isn’t actually the case. I just like my plans to run smoothly and when things are late or delayed it upsets other plans plus it forces me to do nothing. I don’t get upset in traffic – that often. There are exceptions, such as when a twenty minute drive becomes a three hour one due to severe traffic issues. I would like to meet the person who doesn’t get annoyed about that.
Could this sort of tension work in a story?
Yes. It actually works quite well. Particularly in horror where the victims are forced to wait for the next attack. They can’t leave, they can’t get proactive, they can’t call for help. They are stuck just sitting and waiting and unable to do anything that is useful. Sure they can read and they can talk and they can shuffle things around and pretend they are looking for weapons, but they know they are just killing time until someone else decides to act.
What makes you tense in real life and could you use it in a story?
I don’t think anybody likes alarms. They wail and shriek and give you a headache and more often than not they serve no purpose because the alarm was being tested or it went off because of a fault. That said, we aren’t likely to get rid of alarms in a hurry. Despite all the false alarms there is a small chance that this time it is in your best interest to listen and to respond.
Warnings are another thing I don’t like. Particularly on the computer. Warning, this site is insecure. Warning, you are about to send your details etc. I wouldn’t mind so much if these warnings came up when I was genuinely doing something stupid but they always appear when I’m actually playing it safe. When I do something stupid they just let me.
My latest pet hate is the battery warning. “Warning, your cordless mouse’s batteries are critical.” They’ve now been critical for over a week and they still haven’t died. Last time I continued to use the mouse for about a month and a half with the warning up before the batteries actually stopped working. It is irritating. I just start ignoring all messages flashing in the corner of my screen assuming it is just the same old false alarm. As such I probably miss a few important messages and more importantly, when the batteries are actually critical I won’t know it until the mouse actually stops mid-click.
It is the same in stories. False alarms can raise the tension levels, certainly Jaws proved that. Building up and then having nothing happen will keep people guessing and wondering what comes next. If you do it too often, they become emotionally immune to the tactic.
Computer, I am ignoring your warnings. Which means I will be unprepared when something actually does happen and I will be unhappy with the results regardless of how it turns out. I don’t want my reader feeling the same way about my story.
While this may not seem writing related at first, I have a point. I’m sure of it. Somewhere down the page the point will emerge from all of this victorious.
I live in Australia. More importantly I live in Queensland. We don’t have a lot of rain but where it rains here, it really rains. All day to day there has been a storm building in the air. I can feel it. Not in my bones, I’m not quite that old yet, but every part of me has been screaming that there is a storm approaching.
The first is the wave of nauseating heat and humidity that knocks you over at six in the morning. This is followed by walking out under an absolutely clear sky with the golden circle of the sun radiating heat towards you. As you sit in the early morning traffic-jam you wonder if you should have the air-con on in the can and then you realise that eventually you have to get out of the car and you will positively wilt if you’ve been sitting in a cool car.
Once I get to work my hair grabs the humid air and frizzes into all manner of contorted shapes. None of them resembled well styled, or even brushed, hair. There is a storm coming. Everyone knows it. Everyone can feel it.
By the time the dark clouds begin rolling in, the storm is old news. Everyone has already resigned themselves to closing the house up tight, even though it is still ridiculously hot. The first rumble of thunder rolls over and it is an almost welcome release from the day long anticipation. And then… Nothing.
The clouds hang. The humidity stays. The sweat continues to roll down your face. The cat lies against the window pushing her fur against the cool glass. And nothing happens.
Maybe tonight we’ll get the storm, maybe not, but I know I’m feeling let down.
Now comes my leap back to linking with writing.
There is nothing worse than reading a book that builds and builds and builds and then realising that there is nothing coming. As a reader it leaves you unsatisfied and even annoyed that you wasted all that time committing to caring about the characters. This is true even when you know there is a sequel coming. If the book doesn’t contain something that gives the reader that moment of deep satisfaction then odds are, they aren’t going to read it again and they certainly won’t recommend it to others.
Tension is good. Building anticipation is great. Leaving it totally unrealised and hanging at the close of the book = not a fantastic idea.
Let me know what you think.