I frequently see advice to increase tension, up the stakes, or otherwise make things worse for our characters (poor things), but less often do I see advice on how to do this. Since this has always been a struggle for me, I figured some of you all might wonder, too <grin>. (And if you don’t wonder, don’t tell me—I like to think my foibles are part & parcel of being a writer…)
Here are some strategies I use to increase story tension:
- Make more bad stuff happen. Yeah, this is probably a no-brainer, but since it’s also the starting point for all the rest, I didn’t feel right leaving it out. In order to have a story, you need to have conflict; in order to have conflict, your protagonist has to face some sort of challenge—and must surpass numerous obstacles before said challenge is overcome.
When I say obstacles, I mean bad stuff, and although obstacles shouldn’t be gratuitous (no, your main character doesn’t need to have a hurricane descend out of the blue), there are plenty of believable ways to make things more difficult for your character. And, therefore, more interesting for your reader.Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some ways to make the bad stuff pack more of a storyline punch:
- Impose a time limit. Whatever the bad stuff, it’s worse when it happens more quickly. Just sayin’.
- Increase the magnitude of consequence. If your protagonist fails, how bad will it be? Skinned-knee bad might be perfect for a picture book, but when you move into middle grade and young adult fiction, your thoughts need to take a more evil bent. Match the degree to your audience, genre, and the point at which it occurs in the story.
- Increase the permanence of consequence. When you’re thinking of ways to make your character’s outlook gloomier, don’t limit yourself to worsening the type of consequence; you can also worsen the duration of the consequence. Abject humiliation is painful when it lasts a week. If it lasts for the next three years of high school, it becomes unendurable.
- Increase the implications. Consider how failure will impact your character beyond the immediate. For example, a failed class might embarrass him in the short-term, which is bad. It might also mean that he misses a trip, has to go to summer school, and can’t get the job he really, really hoped to get. That’s worse.
- Increase publicity. A failure is bad enough when private; when your family, friends, school, town, or the entire universe knows about it—well, you get the idea.
- Bring in someone the protagonist cares about. Failing that class for a boring teacher is bad; failing the class taught by the teacher you adore and want to impress is earth-shattering. Who does your main character really, really, really not want to know about her failure? Would your main character’s situation be worsened by a witness—such as a would-be girlfriend?
- Bring in someone the character hates, dislikes, or competes with. Can this failure be worsened by bringing in the character’s nemesis/enemy? Failing that class is even worse if your worst enemy finds out about it and posts copies of your failing test all over the school. Ah, humiliation: such a lovely thing…
- Move beyond the personal in failure. Who or what will your protagonist betray by failure? If she breaks a promise, disappoints someone she cares about, or hurts someone else, the consequence, whatever it is, increases exponentially.
- Connect the consequence to your character’s ideals. What does failure do to the protagonist’s beliefs about who he is? A lie most hurts the liar who considers himself truthful; cowardice most hurts the character who considers herself brave; and an act of cruelty might stick with the perpetrator longer than with the victim, if he’s one who considers himself honorable.