Most Common Writing Mistakes: How You May Be Killing Your Story’s Tension
How can you keep your story moving forward in scenes that don’t offer full-blown conflict? No doubt you’ve heard the aphorism, “No conflict, no story.” But your characters can’t be clawing each other’s eyes out in every scene. So how do you keep readers hooked until you can pull out the big guns?
The answer is tension.
Tension is the threat of conflict. It’s conflict’s calmer—but no less potent—cousin. For a story to properly work, tension must be present in every scene.
This, however, can be easier said than done. Sometimes we can zap a story’s tension without even realizing it.
This can happen as the result of a couple of factors:
1. A threat too easily resolved.
2. A threat too far distanced.
3. An undefined character goal.
If your story is suffering from any of these ailments, your tension is going to flatline. Why should readers fear the boogeyman that might be around the corner if they know that
a) the protagonist is going to easily defeat him,
b) the protagonist has run too far and too fast for the boogeyman to ever catch up, or
c) the protagonist has no goal that will be endangered should the boogeyman happen to catch up after all?
Story Tension, Pfft!
Let’s take a look at an example of what can happen to your story if you’ve let the tension drain out and puddle around the protagonist’s feet:
Margie looked from the hunting knife in her hands to the hairy boogeyman she had just easily slain. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, yelping, around the corner of the barn, probably distracted by her clever cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen didn’t return to the scene of the attack for twenty-four hours. That gave her plenty of time to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb into the jet-powered racer. They could clean the house, pick up groceries, maybe even finish the dress Auntie was sewing for her. Come morning, they’d head out. Even if the boogeymen did return sooner than expected, Margie could just kill them like she had this one.
Want a yawn burger and a side of snores to go with that story? Margie obviously has everything under control, so what’s to keep readers from turning on the TV and looking for a character whose straits are a little more dire?
Story Tension Galore!
Let’s try again. We’ll raise the stakes, beef up the threat, shorten the timeline, and give Margie an important goal.
Margie looked from the hunting knife in her trembling hands to the hairy boogeyman she had
somehow managed to slay. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, roaring, around the corner of the barn, probably to devour her beloved cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen never left the scene of attack until all living mammals were dead. They’d be back within seconds. She ran for the house. She had to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb out of here. She could only pray they would be able to get the old jalopy started. Their only chance was to strike out across the desert. Without food or water, they would be lucky to make it as far as Gaptooth Well, but if someone didn’t warn the settlements, every person in the territory could fall prey to the boogeys.
Isn’t that a little better? Nothing actually happens in this scene. There’s no conflict. No arguing. No fighting. No clawing out of eyes. But there’s plenty of tension, since readers know the
threat is both real and imminent. Some super-duper, nail-biting, gooseflesh-raising conflict is just around the corner, and the ratcheted tension in this scene will ensure readers turn the page to face it head on—just like Margie.