Writing tension

I don’t write tension very well.

Tension is when I put the characters in danger and keep them there. Unfortunately, I like giving people a chance to catch their breaths, and I linger in the calm state too long. Not enough tension!

As always, the Kill Zone has an excellent article that exactly addresses what I’m trying to do.

One of my favorite books on craft, Stein on Writing, talks about the concept of the crucible, “the container that holds the characters together as things heat up.” It’s a key to successful plotting:

“Characters caught in a crucible won’t declare a truce and quit. They’re in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can’t run away because they are in a prison cell, a lifeboat, an army, or a family.”

It’s a great concept, and an excellent way to increase drama. But by promising my favorite characters a safe landing, I was creating a crucible and then providing them with ejector seats and parachutes.

That’s when I reset my mental parameters to imagine: What if anybody can die? What if any and all relationships—family, friends, lovers—can be ripped apart by events and choices? And once I put it all on the table, I saw a more powerful way to write fiction. I opened myself to creating stories that went to the end of the line.

So as I’m sitting here staring at my new outline for Spacetime’s fifth draft, I’m asking myself, how to raise the tension? How to heat up that crucible and ramp up the stakes?

My critique group has given me some great ideas. And looking over my outline, I see where some great ideas were introduced early on that never went anywhere. Like the Deathwalkers. They disappear after chapter 4, and I ask myself, why? Why don’t the bad guys summon an army of the things and swarm Phoenix with them?

Why did I not use the Time Bombs in this draft?

Why doesn’t the climax consist of a high speed chase with falling debris and attacking monsters?

Why didn’t the Council Police hunt down the heroes for saving the werewolf from execution?

Why does the lizard addicted to shiny things never steal the hero’s medallion?

And, scariest of all, who do I want to kill off?

Most of the heroes have sequels planned for them, so they can’t die off just yet. But it does give me something to think about.

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3 thoughts on “Writing tension

  1. I like to think that I’m okay at tension. Not GREAT, but okay. My real area of struggle is the calm bits. How do I make it interesting? Ugh.

    I love all those questions though. Little bits of info on your story. Makes me want to read it, mainly because I want to know what you mean by all those questions!

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  2. Since I am not a fan of tension, I think it would be very hard to write. I think you will do just fine though. It is just the killing off part that would get to me. Just make them unlikeable. J.K. made Sirius unlikeable in the fourth book. I caught that this time.

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  3. Don’t think of it as tension, if that’s the hangup – think of it as suspense. I’m not actually a fan of stress but in my most ambitious fic to date… I’ve got 40 solid chapters of the-entire-cast-and-then-some being some degree of stressed. ?Because I do like suspense. Because it works for this fic. And makes sense. And keeps the story moving – and the audience guessing. And with suspesne… it’s not necessarily all *bad* stress, either. You can swing between extremes.

    Dying does happen but – in rather a lot of fictional worlds – death is not always completely permenant. And audiences these days seem to have come to be prepared for that kind of twist. So what may be more useful to you, Net-san… Is to revisit that blog you did while back about ‘what are this characters specific limits and how do we cross those lines in unexpected ways?’

    Another tactic that has really helped my writing mature is combining plots. When I first started in fanfic… I can admit it, my storys were horrible. Flat. Boring. Because there was only one main goal that I wanted to accomplish, one plot. Now… That 40 chapter fic I mentioned earlier – it’s not even finished yet, dangit. I was hoping to keep it under 60 chapters but am starting to doubt that will happen… But the reason it got so huge… Was because I basically took about… *pauses, mentally counts, winces* … a whole lot…of small single-focus plots and decided that they could all be happening in the same world, at the same time. Because these characters all know each other anyway, their actions are going to have ripple effects on each other.

    So instead of just having a story about character x struggling to accomplish this one thing – I do still write those but they’re just one-shots now – I’ve ended up with more than fifty characters and they all have their own secrets and goals and limits… And the reason it works… Is because all these subplots can be woven together into one big plot, which all the characters care about and/or are affected by. So in a way… The story just exists to do the weaving. To show that it’s possible.

    In the words of Galileo: “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

    And discovery in writing can messy and complex-sounding… but with practice, it’s not so challenging. You’re already asking questions and seeking answers – never stop doing that.

    Whatever approach you use, hope you have fun!

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