Friday, February 1
Three Ways to Add Tension During Revisions
Tension is vital to all stories, but let’s face it—we don’t always have it in every scene. I’ve written plenty of scenes that moved the plot along, did what I wanted them to do, but were weak on tension, especially in a first draft. I’d guess a lot of first draft scenes lack tension because the focus in often on the story, the setting, or the characters (or any combination of those).
Since authors usually know what is going to happen in a scene and why, it's easy to write all the tension out of a scene. That critical sense of uncertainty is missing. We might not write something because we know it won't affect the outcome of the scene. But that potential outcome can raise the tensions and make the reader wonder what might happen.
Luckily, tension is something you can add during the second draft.
1. Tension between characters
Look at the characters in your scene. If everyone is on the same page and working as one, you could be missing out on potential areas for tension.
Can anyone be actively trying to prevent your protagonist from getting or doing what he wants? Look for people with reasons not to help your protagonist. A clerk who isn’t being helpful. A guard they have to sneak past. A minion of the antagonist with a full-on plan to stop them. Any type of conflict, large or small, that could make the outcome uncertain.
Can anyone disagree with your protagonist? Even if two people want the same thing, they might have different ideas on how to get it. Look for people who might have other ideas about what the protagonist is doing. Maybe they flat out think she’s wrong, or maybe they agree but think she’s going about it the wrong way. Maybe these opposite opinions can make the reader wonder if the protagonist's view is right or not, adding more uncertainty.
Can anyone have an agenda of her own that interferes with your protagonist’s plan? If two guys are after the same girl, one might try to sabotage the other. Or maybe a secondary character thinks she’s protecting the hero by making sure he fails. Even good intentions can create trouble if the person hearing the advice doesn't like it.
Can anyone be keeping things from your protagonist? Secrets are great ways to add uncertainty and keep readers guessing, especially if they suspect that secret could affect the protagonist or his plan. Even something minor that does little more than embarrass a character if he reveals it could keep things interesting.
(More on using secrets to raise tension here)
2. Tensions with the setting
Life doesn’t always play along. It rains when we want to go on a picnic, the restaurant that was supposed to be romantic has a busload of rowdy school kids on a field trip, or the power goes out when we really need that computer. Murphy’s Law happens, and which environment you put your characters into could add some conflict and raise the tension in that scene.
Can weather be a factor? Someone who's cold and miserable might say things they ordinarily wouldn't. A trip that might be easy in clear weather could be dangerous in bad weather.
Will changing location make the goals harder? Sneaking through a park you grew up next to feels different than sneaking through an area you've never seen before. A new location can add a layer of uncertainty and make your protagonist second guess herself.
Is there a setting or location that causes your characters stress or discomfort? If you protagonist is terrified of heights, forcing them into the air will affect how they'll act.
(More on adding tension through the setting here)
3. Tensions with the self
Sometimes the problem isn't about external forces. A personal struggle can be even more powerful because it's so emotional. Wondering what a character might do in a rough situation is a surefire way to keep tensions high.
Can your protagonist face a moral dilemma? They can get what the need, but they don't really approve of what they'll have to do. They must make a personal sacrifice, and maybe they aren't prepared or ready to do so. Or the cost of that action has far-reaching consequences. Do the ends really justify the means?
Can the right choice require going against their personal beliefs? The "right" answer or course of action is clearly, absolutely in conflict with everything the protagonist knows is right and true. Doing a bad thing for a good cause.
Can the protagonist face something that forces him to address an issue he's been avoiding? A great tension builder for that character who needs to learn a lesson and grow. Characters don't always want to face their demons, but they have no choice if you shove them right up in their faces. And the fallout can be devastating.
Can she face an impossible choice? Impossible choices have no clear answer, which means the reader won't see it coming. Maybe the only way to save the child is to let the mother die. Or something horrible will happen no matter what the protagonist does. If you get your reader thinking, "I have no idea how this is going to turn out," you'll keep them hooked.
Small changes can affect big results, so try starting small and building outward. Look for ways to build tensions on a smaller scale, with simple changes to dialog or how someone reacts to something. You can raise the tension without having to change how a scene unfolds.
(More ways to add tension to a scene here)
What are your favorite ways to add tension to a scene?