Feeling Tense?

August 5, 2010 at 5:01 am (Character, Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

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The Photocopy Saga

June 7, 2010 at 6:11 am (Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , )

I have decided that the most evil, malicious creature in all existence is the shared photocopier at work. Admittedly, I can hand my photocopying in, neatly labelled and have someone else do it and return it in around three days but I hate asking people to do something I can easily do.  Easily – if the stupid machine would actually work.

There is a writing related point at the end of this rant – I hope.

I was preparing some materials and needed approximately 60 copies of eight different sheets.  Some were being done back to back, some needed stapling, some needed to be enlarged, shrunk or whatever. No problem.

Ran off the first sheet. It beeped away and hummed and did its thing and only had three paper jams during the run and only sprayed toner over four of the pages. That counts as success with this photo copier.

Next run, out of paper.  Fill it up with paper and resume. No toner left. Because it sprayed it over the last run but fine (I’ll resist the urge to shake the machine and just get on with fixing it).

Walk to the main office, request toner, wait until they look up which toner goes in that photocopier, get toner, read directions, place in machine and oh, wait for it to realise it now has toner.

Three more sheets and then there is a paper jam.

Five more after that, it runs out of staples (okay,really wanting to hurt the machine at this point).

The bottom line is I ended up spending nearly forty minutes doing something that shouldn’t have taken very long and I should have accomplished easily. And I didn’t actually finish the run. I still had three sheets that I hadn’t photocopied at all.

My writing related point. Just because something sounds easy, doesn’t mean it will be. Your character can be perfectly capable of completing what should be a very easy task and yet something can happen to make it an absolute nightmare.

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Why Yoga and Kittens Don’t Mix

February 10, 2010 at 5:37 am (Character, Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , )

Or, why some situations are just doomed to end in tears.

I try to do yoga everyday. What that means is, I do it everyday on holidays and maybe once over the weekend once I’m back at work because I just do not find the time and when I have the time, I don’t have the energy. Occasionally I’ll manage the time during the week and I’m really glad about it because I feel so much better.

Unfortunately, my kitten seems to think that when I am stretching out on a mat that is must be an invite for her to come running over and to try to get pats. She rolls over my feet and if I’m lying down she’ll try to crawl onto my stomach and curl up and go to sleep, which doesn’t work for me when I’m about to move and try to keep the routine flowing. Clearly this is a situation where I am not going to win. Yes, I can put her in a different room and shut the door but that seems kind of mean and she is really cute and if it comes to a choice between spending time with my cat and yoga, the cat will win.

There are lots of these situations in real life where it is quite obvious that even though there are ways around a problem, it just isn’t going to happen. It is better just to concede and move on.

However, what if our protagonist was simply to concede and move on. They’ve been driven for page after page to accomplish something and finally they’ve decided to pass. How disappointing would that be?

The difference is that while I like yoga it is clearly low on my priorities (or at least lower than keeping my kitten happy). I work, I write, I spend time with family, I spend time reading, I spend time with friends, I watch television and let my brain take a break, I go for walks, I have lots of things that I do throughout the week that take priority over yoga. So, when I walk away from it, I’m still driven toward my goals.

Protagonists can walk away from things so long as they still have their main goal ahead of them. In point of fact it may make them more interesting if they are forced to make tough choices and give things away in order to achieve their other goals. It may be that they could save the world if only they didn’t try to bail their sister out of jail and left her to sort her own problems out. The protagonist may worry over this choice but in the end the choice is obvious.

In my life, yoga and kittens are not mixing well. For the protagnoist in my WIP her day job and her boyfriend are colliding and one is going to have to go. What choices do your protagonists face?

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Things that go thump in the night

February 4, 2010 at 5:39 am (Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , )

Things that go thump in the night are fairly predictable. You lie in bed hearing a clattering on the roof, a bang, a tinkle, a crash, a thump and swishing noise and you count them off in your head.

Tree.

Cat /possum.

Another Tree.

Fallen branch.

Gutter pulling away from the roof.

Slight gap in the window so the wind is making that weird noise again.

Tree.

Nothing overly earth shattering. Not really. I actually find comfort in these sounds and others because I’m so used to them. When they stop I wonder why and the silence is actually more alarming than the myriad of sounds I usually hear.

Sometimes things that go thump in the night are perfectly mundane and sometimes we just tell ourselves they are and both can work really well in a story. If your character jumps at every single sound then people are going to be wondering if they had a sheltered upbringing but if they roll their eyes and ignore the sounds, and ignore even the important sounds it could make for some interesting possibilities.

Incidentally, the two thumps I couldn’t ignore: a car crashing into a wall down the road and a tree falling through a fence. Those two things were definitely not part of the usual nightly sounds and both got an immediate reaction.

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Sleep Deprived Characters

January 28, 2010 at 5:32 am (Character, Tension) (, , , , , , )

Most writers I have spoken to know exactly what it feels like to be sleep deprived. To have gone on well past your limit and to be at that stage where thought is utterly impossible. Your limbs feel heavy, your vision is blurring, sounds are too loud but not clear, and simple questions suddenly take hours to think through to answer.

How long does it take you to get to this stage? I know I am not the kind of person who can go for days without sleep. Possibly in an extreme situation with adrenaline and the like I could be on my feet for a little longer but my thinking would probably still be very cloudy and incoherent.

Which brings us to characters in stories.

We’ve all read stories where the characters have been running, hiding, fighting, etc for days and nights and snatching a few moments rest when they can. These characters are occasionally described as looking tired and they mention a need for rest but their actions seldom match. They still make good decisions and they still manage to lift their weapons and aim and to run in a straight line.

Putting your character in a situation where they can’t rest gives you the perfect opportunity to build tension. It also gives you an excellent opportunity to make a really bad situation much worse as the character muddles their way through the events and makes mistakes caused by just being too exhausted to really think things through.

Are your characters getting enough sleep?

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Tension through forced in-activity

January 20, 2010 at 5:26 am (Tension) (, , , , , )

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?

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Warning, False Alarm

November 27, 2009 at 5:10 am (Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , )

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.

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