|Annette M. Irby|
In life, both our minds and bodies prefer the security of remaining in a comfortable place—not too hot or too cold, not too stressed or too dull, not too hungry or too full. And we don’t like to be in pain. If we get out of those comfort zones, we aim for the nearest means of getting right back in. We like to keep things even. That’s homeostasis. It’s also deadly to your story's plot.
TIP: Don’t let things go calm and remain there for long. Always have another layer of conflict brewing when one is tied up. Let there be conflict! Let there be tension! For then, there is story.
The most satisfying song endings are those that resolve. They come “down” and don’t leave you feeling as if the conclusion of the song hasn’t happened. Resolution is great in music and in arguments, for that matter, but not in story.
TIP: Keep the reader hooked by avoiding resolution at scene and chapter endings. Bring up new questions for the reader at these key spots. Let there be another layer of conflict building beneath the surface.
No Early Rescues
Let your characters suffer and let them face conflicts and trials without rescuing them too early. Challenge yourself as a writer to come up with a solution to situations you’ve never faced. Don’t take the easy way out, or necessarily the first solution. Be careful of letting angels or God rescue your characters all (or, some would say, any of) the time. Be careful of writing contrived rescues. Let them happen naturally. Use foreshadowing. For example, perhaps your hero and heroine are out rock climbing and he has no idea what he’s doing. But earlier in the story you mentioned that your heroine used to teach rock climbing or that she’s spent ten years perfecting her rescue techniques. Then, have her rescue him, after a harrowing scene. This will feel believable. When he’s rescued, though, let tension arise over something else. Now, she’ll have to share her secret, or now he’ll have to give her a job—whatever works for your story.
TIP: Let your characters use their own ingenuity to get out jams, but let them suffer first.
My heroine just talked herself right out of the scene’s inherent tension. Snore! As writers, we want to:
1) Find the inherent conflict or tension of a scene. If none exists, invent something fitting.
2) Milk that tension or conflict.
3) Draw out the scene to a fitting length without going too long, as that will feel contrived.
Just because we prefer homeostasis in life, or we rationalize our worries away, or God does rescue us, doesn’t mean our stories will benefit from this. And feel free to throw some twists in here. Perhaps your character doesn’t know all the things the reader does, so she rationalizes away her fears, then the sociopath attacks. That’s great tension!
Recognize and Neutralize
The overall key is to recognize when we, as writers, are attempting to bring the plot back under control so we’re comfortable. Maybe the story’s gotten too emotional, so we’d rather avoid the pain, or maybe we’d rather not be in that dark house during a thunderstorm. But good story isn’t about comfort. It’s about tension and conflict.
Seek out the tension robbers and eliminate them before they take away the story’s value. Your readers will love you for it!
Your turn: What are some other tension robbers you’ve noticed? As a writer, how do you ensure you have enough tension?