Weekly Writing Memo: 5 Ways to Increase Tension in StoryPosted: February 17, 2016
In last week’s WWM we talked about how to use feedback to fix your story and the ways you can get the most from a critique. This week we’re focusing in on how to fix a lack of tension in a story, as it is one of the most common issues I come across when beta reading. Tension, by definition, involves two opposing forces holding something taut between them, such as two hands pulling ends of a rubber band in opposite directions.
In fiction, tension can be seen when the protagonist is facing an opposing force that is preventing him/her from getting what he/she wants. Essentially, tension in stories comes down to conflict. That conflict can come from three main places: the protagonist vs their own mental issues (self), the protagonist vs other characters (including animals), or the protagonist vs the setting. The conflict comes when the protagonist wants something, and the opposing force prevents them from getting it.
For example, when the opposing force is the protagonist’s self, then it could be something like anxiety or disease that prevents the protagonist from getting what they want such as in Girl, Interrupted. All of the characters in the institute want to be free and maybe even normal, but their individual mental issues prevent them from successfully reintegrating into society.
When there is a problem in tension a story can feel slow, boring, too easy, or even unbelievable. The method to fix it can vary depending on the story you’re writing, but there are several almost universal ways to fix tension in a story.
- Cut scenes with no conflict.
Anytime you have a scene where your protagonist gets everything they want, or is just going through the motions, then you have a scene where there is no conflict or tension. This may work out for the ending of a story, or even the beginning if the point is to show your protagonist before their world is upturned, but it doesn’t generally work in the middle. So if you don’t have an unfulfilled want, if there is no conflict, you could probably cut the scene out altogether.
- Figure out what your protagonist wants, and then refuse to give it to them.
What drives stories forward is a protagonist who is seeking something, and figuring out how to get it. Even in dialogue scenes your protagonist should have to work for what they want. Sometimes, even when your character gets what they want, it doesn’t solve their problem so it creates new wants and conflicts. This idea of what your protagonist wants should drive every scene of the story, and your protagonist struggling to get it should continue until the very end.
- Whenever possible, up the stakes for your protagonist.
A very common phrase you’ll her in writing is “what are the stakes?” The stakes are what your character is risking to get what they want, and a surefire way to increase tension in the story is to up the risk involved in your protagonist’s pursuits. Say he wants to buy a casino, but he has to put his life savings on the line in order to afford it. That’s a big thing, but it could be bigger if he was a family man with six kids to feed and care for. The more that is at risk for the protagonist, the more risk the pursuit of their want has, the more tension in the story.
- Add different layers of conflict.
You don’t have to use only one type of conflict at a time. By using variety you can add to the tension within the story without making your plot get unbelievable. For example, if you give your character an internal conflict – such as a fear of growing old – as well as an external conflict – his wife is leaving him – it creates two possible sources of tension. The internal one that affects everything the character does, and the external one that he has to solve. You don’t want to go crazy adding layers upon layers upon layers of conflict and drama, but you can use several layers to create more tension.
- Cue in the audience.
If you don’t want to add more conflict directly to your character’s story, you can add conflict by cuing in the audience to a conflict that is unknown to the protagonist. For example, if your character is afraid he’s going to lose his job you have a basic conflict. It works, and it is tense because something is at stake for the character.
However, if you wanted more conflict to the story you could show the audience that the company has already planned to fire everyone, including the protagonist. That could create more tension for the audience because they are waiting to see the protagonist’s reaction, as well as what he/she will do when faced with the news.
This method of tension is also often used in horror movies when the audience can see what the bad guy is doing while the protagonist cannot. It creates a sense of impending doom.
They key to understanding tension is to remember that it doesn’t come from dangerous situations, though it can, but instead it comes from the audience seeing the protagonist not getting what they want and wondering how, or if, the protagonist will succeed in the end. So whenever you feel that your story may be going slow, or lacking tension, ask yourself what your protagonist wants, and find a way to refuse letting them have it.