Monday, February 02, 2009

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

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?


Rena Jones said...

Great post, Tabitha. I write mostly PBs and there can be tension in those, but you've given me a lot to think about. Thanks.

PJ Hoover said...

One thing I'm working on is tension and conflict but making sure they are related to the story. Conflict for conflict's sake seems very forced for me. The best tension comes from direct things related to the plot of subplot. It must have a purpose.

Tabitha said...

Rena - I'm no expert on PBs. I'm definitely *not* that talented. :) But I read a lot of them to my kids, and I know what you mean. There is definitely room for tension, and it makes my kids' eyes pop wide and they ask me "What's going to happen, Mommy?" To which I always reply, "Let's read and find out." :)

PJ - you betcha. :) Everything in a story must have purpose, or the reader will be wondering what's going on. :) I just finished a book that was riveting, until the end. Then I sat there wondering what the point of the story was. It really felt like the author was ramping things up just to create a thrilling experience, then didn't tie in any of it. Very annoying! :)

Bish Denham said...

Tension can come from internal or external conflicts the MG has/is having or has had in tha past...Tension can be developed between characters, between a place and character, between an idea and a character. It's just about everywhere.

Now, if I could just figure out how to write it down...:O

Unknown said...

I go by what you start with: I ask, simply, what's the worst that can happen? I, the author, add the problem--the characters add the reaction to it.

Anonymous said...

I think the stakes help determine the tension level also. One reason survival stories are so riveting is that everything's at stake.

When the stakes matter only to the main character, then the tension arises from our getting to know the MC so well that we share the desire for her goal ... even if her goal is something that wouldn't matter much to us in real life.

Jenn Hubbard

Merc said...

Good post, Tabitha.

Yeah, I start there too--how can things go wrong? How can they go worse? How can they go beyond hellishly worse? O:)

There's external and internal tensions, too. Conflict between characters. A character with himself. (I like this one, especially.)

I like to throw internal conflict and external conflict, and keep upping the ante on them both... not sure I actually SUCCEED so much, but that's the goal. ;) (While, yes, keeping it to a point where the reader can follow and it doesn't seem so unbelievable and stupid or contrived.)


Christina Farley said...

Very interesting stuff. Tension is something I've been working on in my latest WIP. I usually don't have a problem with external tension. I always like to make my characters go through fire. But this time I'm working on the internal. And that's tough. Making the characters want something but then that something becomes exactly what they don't want.

Jacqui said...

Hmm. Food for thought. I love tension as set-up, where you think it's just something annoying that's adding to the tension but is unrelated...and then it turns out to be central. So the writer's son who's pestering her seems just a device until she finds out he was trying to tell her the kitchen was flooded.

Tabitha said...

Bish - I'm with you! There are so many possible ways to bring in tension that it's sometimes hard to decide how to do it. I tend to er on the side of too much, and have to trim it out...hmm, what does that say about me? :)

Beth - isn't that a great recipe? It's so cool how there's this kind of interaction between the author and her fictional characters. :)

Jenn - absolutely! Figuring out the highest stakes possible will bring out such fabulous tension that the reader won't be able to put the story down.

Merc - there are so many ways to bring in tension that there was no way I could list them all. It's awesome that you all are adding to the list. :)

Christina - I *love* stories like that! And that happens so often in life too. I remember wanting things that were the absolute wrong things to want. I eventually figured it out, but it wasn't an easy journey.

Jacqui - yeah, that's a great form of tension. Anything that seems innocuous but turns out to be vital. Hard to do, but it has such an impact on the reader. :)

Mary Witzl said...

I'm trying to work tension into a plot as I write this comment (it's great having so many ways to procrastinate!) and the one thing I'm nervous about doing is making it unrealistic or unbelievable. It's so easy to make people act out of character because you're trying to achieve a particular ending. I've done this before and had to go back and redo it all...

C.R. Evers said...

interesting post. I like to give my characters good internal tension. Even though they could do something good, and it should be a "no-brainer" I like to give my character a good reason why they shouldn't do the right thing. What could they lose? What might they give up? How might the best thing for everyone else, be the worst thing for my character?

fun post!