When it comes to our stories, writers ask this question for multiple reasons. We need to stretch our imaginations to see how far we can take them. We need to examine our characters to see how far they are willing to go. And, we need to verify that the setting and situation can support these worst-case-scenarios.
We also need to assess the highest stakes a story can have. High stakes add tension, and prompt the reader to ask questions. Will the main character get what she wants? And how will she get out of this terrible situation? These kinds of questions keep the reader glued to the pages.
But how to you plant that kind of tension in a story, keeping the reader on the edge of his seat? Basically, tension comes from things going wrong, not right.
For example, a writer is on deadline and trying to work, but her five-year-old son keeps interrupting her, breaking her train of thought, making it difficult to concentrate. This isn’t a make-or-break moment in the writer’s life, yet the constant badgering raises the tension in that she has less time to get her work done. Depending on the writer, this could infuriate her to the point where she can’t get any work done, even after she’s dealt with the child. This raises the stakes such that she may not complete her work on time, which leads to stress from being behind and having all her regular responsibilities on top of everything. Sound familiar? :)
Tension can come from anywhere: The main conflict in the story. The complications that arise in the story. Outside influences that are beyond the main character’s control. Neuroses that the character puts upon himself. Other characters. Natural disasters. Global warming. You name it. If it’s going wrong, it’s going to add tension to your story. Just don't overdo it, and make sure that tension stays realistic. : )
But there is one area of things going wrong that does not create tension.
Tension does not come from the main character making contrived or uncharacteristic choices. The reader can (and will!) look back and see how the result of that choice could have been avoided. Readers are good at 'back seat driving,' so to speak. They say things like "I never would have done something so stupid." Or "Duh! Didn't she know long ago that this would happen?" and then all your sympathy for your main character goes out the window. It can take the reader from the edge of the seat to off the seat entirely, setting the book down in the process.
When I examine tension, I start with myself. What’s going on in my life that’s causing tension? Money? Child care? Rejections? My son bothering me while I'm trying to write this post? There is always something, because life is never perfect. And looking at what’s going on in my life can help me get a handle on what might be going on in my characters’ lives.
How do you bring tension into your stories?