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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