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 love watching old movies. The good guys all wear white or at least tan and other pale colours and manage to keep their hair in perfect formation (maybe one strand will blow across their face) and they save the day with minimal loss and pain. Perfect feel good moment. I hate reading stories like this though.
Maybe it is because I look for different things from the movies I watch to the books I read. Movies can have a terrible story, bad acting, awful effects, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m being entertained. Yes, I prefer movies that actually have a story and good actors, the effects can go either way, but entertainment is all that is required. From books, I expect far more. I expect an intelligent and intriguing story and characters with depth that draw me in. I expect that the good guy won’t just be good because he’s (she’s) written that way but that they are actually given some sort of purpose and motivation.
My favourite protagonists when I read, have flaws. Massive and horrible character flaws usually. While I love reading David Eddings stories (the Elenium Trilogy is amazing) there is only one David Eddings character that ever made my list of favourite characters and that was Althalus. All of his other heroes are good because they are good and work together because it is the right thing to do. Althalus on the other hand was a thief and was coerced by a goddess disguised as a cat into saving the world. That appealed to me on a number of levels.
People in real life are never all good or all bad. And they aren’t the same in every situation and around different groups of people. I think characters in stories should reflect that to an extent.
That said, just going entirely the opposite direction and having an anti-hero can feel a bit old as well.
Who is your favourite good guy and why?
I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.
Despite being a fantasy writer by nature, I have noticed a distinct lack of fantastical references on my blog, mostly because I am focused on the art of writing in general and have tried not to be genre specific. That said, today I want to focus on fantasy.
Below is my list of favorite fantastical creatures and the books in which they feature. I’ve tried to think of one example where they are used really well and one example where the creature has become groan worthy. Certainly feel free to add your own opinions to the list.
1. Dragons – of course the list had to start with dragons. Whether we are talking wyverns, wyrms, drakes, western hunters, pernese, doesn’t matter, I love dragons. Yet they are quite frequently a hit and miss character in books (and movies, but that is an entirely different blog post).
- The Best: Strabo from the Magic Kingdom of Landover Series (Terry Brooks). Who can dislike a dragon that can cross the mists between worlds, is intelligent and yet shockingly ego-centric, noble in a way and yet infuriatingly stubborn on other issues. By far my favourite dragon and the only down side is the limited book space he actually gets.
- The Worst: Lady Ramkin’s dragons from the Discworld Series (Terry Pratchett). I don’t think the world really needed exploding dragons, no matter how amusing they might be.
2. Fairies – or faeries, doesn’t matter how you want to spell it. Surprisingly, fairies are few and far between in the books I choose to read. A shame, because these tiny characters could be absolutely incredible.
- The Best: Applecore from the War of The Flowers (Tad Williams). The foul mouthed fairy dominates every scene she is in and despite her small size, utterly dominates Theo as he stumbles blindly around in fairy land. Quick witted and utterly devoted, she is definitely a fine example of fairies in action.
- The Worst: Simon from A Modern Magician (Robert Weinberg). I love this story, and I love Simon’s character, but he is a terrible fairy. Admittedly, they are actually changelings, and they borrow their lore from Shakespeare, and in the modern age they now pose as long lost relatives or exchange students, but something about him is distinctly unfairy like.
3. Elves – way too broad a category really. Particularly when you consider how many different variations there have been on these characters. Still, they have a very active role in a large number of fantasies, and when used well, work superbly.
- The Best: All of the elves as presented in The Deverry Series (Katherine Kerr). One of the best elvish cultures created and brought to life. Particularly in the later books of the series, the elves very much become dominant characters and are thoroughly enjoyable.
- The Worst: ?
4. Ghosts – always did love a good ghost story, but the key word is good. Ghosts that simply spook for no apparent reason and finally at the end reveal that they were somebody someone knew really don’t work for me. I like ghosts with personality and voice.
- The Best: Ariel from A Knight of the Word Series (Terry Brooks). Made from the memories of dead children, she serves The Word and delivers messages to those in need, as well as protecting Nest as she tries to save the Knight from his Demon stalker. Ariel is a fascinating character, though rather short lived.
- The Worst: Nearly Headless Nick in Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling). Despite saying I liked ghosts with personality, Nearly Headless doesn’t really work for me and most of the time I found myself wishing that he and the other ghosts of Harry Potter would simply disappear. Though, I make an exception for Moaning Myrtle who was thoroughly entertaining.
5. Vampires – I really couldn’t do this list without including vampires. I’m a little biased in the vampire category, given I was a Buffy fan and that kind of skews my view point a little. Vampires are classic characters that have been given so many contemporary twists, and in many book shops even their own section, that I just had to include them.
- The Best: Not technically a vampire (dhampir, half human-half vampire) I am giving best vampire to Magiere from the Noble Dead Saga (Barb & J.C. Hendee). Her dress sense, her attitude, and her continual ability to thwart destiny are incredible, as is her ability to get herself into the worst kind of trouble. Besides, the vampires she hunts are quite interesting, and very resilient – more so than the usual vampire. Makes for some very interesting reading.
- The Worst: Again, not technically vampires by any definition of the word, but I place the entire Cullen family from Twilight (Stephanie Meyer). Not actually dissing Twilight, simply pointing out that glistening, venom producing creatures that do not grow fangs and can go out in daylight, don’t actually qualify (at least in my version of reality) as vampires. If she had named them something else, maybe I would have got over this already.
As I said right at the start of the list, please feel free to disagree of give me your own examples. I would love to know what you think about fantastical creatures in books.
And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.