Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Turn Up The Tension

Most of us understand that in order for our fiction (and some nonfiction and poetry for that matter) to be intense and dramatic, it must be infused with tension. It is tension that creates the suspense which compels the reader to keep reading, makes them turn the page to find out what happens next. It is basic storytelling.

The building block of this tension is a motivated character. We must have a character that wants something and that character must face obstacles to achieving what she wants. It is the battle between the character and the obstacles that create tension. Will she succeed despite everything? Will she end up disappointed? Again, it is basic storytelling.

If you successfully render this tension, you will deliver a perfectly fine story. Your two detectives want to catch and arrest the mysterious killer. He wants to remain free. They will examine the clues, follow leads down blind alleys, but eventually figure out the killer and bring him to justice. A fine plot, if fairly common. But, despite following all the rules, your story comes out feeling flat, undeveloped. Why?

Because you’ve made your tension too simple. Humans are incredibly complex creatures. We almost never act with only one motivation and, in groups, we almost never all agree to act on the same motivation. Not entirely. In any given situation, any person can be influenced by a myriad of motivations, some of them not even consciously acknowledged.

Use this complexity to add a depth of tension to your scenes.

Let’s go back to our detectives. The primary motivation remains the same: they both want to identify and arrest the murderer. But we can play with this. One detective, John, sees himself as a warrior in an epic battle against evil. He wants to catch the killer because he feels personally offended, good has to defeat evil. The second detective, Sharon, wants to catch the murderer because it’s her job and she wants to be the best at her job. Maybe she wants a promotion. Maybe she wants to eventually be Chief of Police and this is a stepping stone to that goal.

Now their conversations and will be more interesting because, while they still have the same goal, now their differing motivations may lead to disagreements over methods. Will Sharon be willing to bend the rules along the way? She may not. Not if it could put her career in jeopardy.

But we can go further still. The detectives can have minor, or side motivations. Perhaps John is having a conflict with his wife over the amount of time he spends working, instead of with his family. That will affect his decisions and interactions with his partner and others involved in the case. Perhaps Sharon has been diagnosed with cancer, but hasn’t told anyone because she’s afraid it will hurt her career. That too, will affect her actions and decisions.

One could go to extremes with this. But just as in real life, too many conflicting motivations only paralyses characters. Keep it to the major motivations and keep the number to just two or three. For one thing, it makes it easier for us, the author, to keep track of them. It’s also easier for the reader to comprehend.

Write the motivations for each major character on a sticky note and post it to your monitor. Write them on the cover of your notebook. Whatever it takes. But keep all these conflicting motivations in mind as you write each scene. Doing so will infuse your writing with depths of tension that readers crave and will keep them coming back.


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