BrianWFoster’s Fifth Law of Writing

Fifth Law: Add Tension.

Have you ever written a good scene where the words flow, but it somehow seems off or boring?  The problem is probably a lack of tension.

Scenes need conflict and tension to engage the reader.  Take the following dialogue exchange:

Protagonist: Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s (fill in the blank).

Others in the party: That’s a great idea!

Remember what Alfred Hitchcock said: A story is life with the dull parts taken out.  The dialogue above is boring.  You can take it out by summarizing: They all agreed to (fill in the blank).  Alternately, you could show the group doing the activity and let the reader assume that everyone agreed to do it. 

Depending on your story, it might be better to keep the discussion.  Spice it up:

Protagonist: Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s (fill in the blank).

Friend: Imbecile!  That’s a horrible idea.

Make the protagonist fight to win over the group.  Keep in mind, however, that you risk making the friend appear whiny.  If you make sure that the friend’s arguments and motivations are good, you lessen this problem.

The best tip I’ve read to add tension to a scene is:

  1. Give your protagonist a goal.
  2. Create opposition that prevents your protagonist from reaching the goal.
  3. To increase tension, increase your protagonist’s desire to achieve the goal and/or the strength of the opposition.

Let’s say that your protagonist, Jane, is in a scene.  Her scene goal is that she’s thirsty and needs a soda.  The opposition is that the car won’t start.  Since her goal is kind of weak, she might just decide that she can grab a glass of tap water.  The opposition is weak as well.  Perhaps the store is at the end of the block.  She can walk and grab a soda.

What if we play with the goal?  Instead of needing a soda, her child was just ate something the caused an allergic reaction.  The kid’s throat is clogging.  She desperately needs Benadryl. 

This is much better.  She has to get the medicine.  The problem is the obstacle.  Why doesn’t she call 911?  Failing that, she can run down to the corner pharmacy.

We need to increase the opposition as well.  They’re living in the deep south, and they’re having the snowstorm of the century.  The roads are so bad that even ambulances aren’t running.  Add to that the fact that the nearest drug store is two miles away, and you’ve got the makings of some tension.

Show Jane trekking through the snow, forcing every step to get to that pharmacy and back before her child dies.  Then, she gets to the story and…  It’s closed.  That sets up your next scene.  Does she break in?  I don’t know, but I want to find out.

In my example above, note an additional tip: adding time pressure helps to increase tension.  You’ve seen it in a million movies and TV shows: the seconds ticking down until the bomb explodes, the car that’s about to fall over the edge of a cliff as the rescue workers struggle to pull the people out.  It’s clichéd for a reason; it works.

One final thought on tension: It’s necessary for most scenes, but be careful.  Too many high stress scenes in a row wear the reader out.  You want to engage the reader, and being unvarying in tension can cause them to pull away.  I’ll cover pacing in a future post.

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