Even if you don't watch TV, odds are you've heard someone somewhere mention Downton Abbey. It's a fantastic show, and one of the things that really impresses me about it is the sense of tension.
If you haven't seen the show, go watch it. Seriously. Just the first season is fine for this post. That's only seven episodes.
If you have seen it, you'll know that nothing really happens, yet you can't look away.
If you're unsure about how to achieve tension in your work, Downton Abbey will show you how. Since you might not have time to go watch seven hours of TV, I'll share some of those reasons now.
1. It starts with a problem.
Right away, something has happened and there's a direct consequence to the main characters because of it. In this case, the Titanic has sunk and the two main heirs to the Lord of the manor have died. No heir = major problem, and the only way for the characters not to lose their home and wealth is to marry the eldest daughter to the next in line.
Why this works: A problem with high stakes makes readers curious. It clearly matters to the characters in a "life and death" way without actually having someone's life in danger. But their lives will forever be altered for the worse by what has happened, and the only way to fix it is to do something they'd rather not do. It also leaves you with questions about the outcome. What will the new heir be like? Will the eldest daughter catch his eye? Will they be able to arrange a marriage or will they be tossed out on their ears? What will they do if that happens?
How you can use this: Start each scene with a problem and give the protagonist an issue that has to be solved or their life will change for the worse.
(More on goals)
2. Things do not go well.
What the characters hope will happen, doesn't. In fact, the opposite occurs. The heir is not at all the noble Brit the family had hoped for, and he and the daughter do not get along. Not only is the family at risk, but the honor and traditions of the estate as well, which is like a family member to them.
Why this works: The problem is clearly stated and a path of what has to be done to resolve it is laid out, along with the stakes if they fail. It's very clear where the story is going. The daughter has to win over the heir or the family loses everything. And "everything" has gone up a notch, because the heir doesn't understand what being Lord of Downton Abbey means. Not only the family is at risk, but the town and the estate as well. It hits on a personal and broader level.
How you can use this: Don't give your protagonist a break. Let things not go their way, either through their own actions, or the actions of others. People don't want to do what's best for them but what's best for themselves.
(More on causing trouble)
3. Things get complicated.
Once the main storyline is set up, the subplots kick in. Not only is the show about the noble family, but the staff who lives and works there. Every character has a conflict with at least one other, with goals, hopes, and problems of their own. Nothing really story-driving, but when combined with everything else going on, there's always something about to happen that could blow up at any moment. There's tension because there are people who all want different things, and there are consequences to each person getting what they want.
Why this works: It helps take the pressure off the main story, holds the viewers' attention, and gives viewers even more things to worry and wonder about. These are the subplots and supporting characters of a story, and better still, their actions have consequences an influences on what the main characters are doing. Petty grievances lead to bigger-than-intended problems.
How you can use this: Give your secondary and supporting characters problems of their own to deal with. You don't want to create subplots that require their own book to resolve, but let the other characters have lives of their own. They're not just there to prop up the main character. Small issues can affect the protagonist and core conflict, and create tension because what the hero might need from another character could go against what they want. Or a smaller character could do something that could adversely affect the hero.
(More on secondary characters)
4. People make mistakes at the worst possible time.
Tension works when the reader feels that anything might happen at any time and it'll likely be bad. Downton Abbey excels at that, because the characters make mistakes. Sometimes really huge mistakes that threaten everything they want, but also honest mistakes, petty mistakes, and evil, deliberate mistakes.
Why this works: It helps keep things unpredictable, and keeps the stakes escalating. It also shows that any character is capable of throwing a wrench into the protagonist's plans.
How you can use this: Let characters act in ways that hurt your protagonist. They can even help you setup a bad situation you need for your protagonist that they can't get themselves into on their own (create a plot situation that would otherwise feel implausible). Let your protagonist make mistakes, too. Nobody is perfect and people do the right thing for the wrong reasons (or the wrong thing for the right reason) all the time. They even do the stupid thing for the selfish reason.
(More on making mistakes)
5. Not everybody is nice.
Two words for the fans: O'Brien and Thomas. Two characters you love to hate, but things in the Abbey would go way too smoothly if they weren't there. Yet they're not really antagonists. They're petty, selfish, mean-spirited, but they're not trying to stop the protagonists from anything. But they do cause loads of trouble and don't care who they hurt to get what they want.
Why this works: Without a traditional villain antagonist (the antagonist here is a nice guy who just doesn't want what they want), there's no one in the show to root against. These characters take on the role of "characters we hate" so the other characters can shine a bit more. (I mean seriously, wouldn't you hate Mary if she wasn't compared to O'Brien?) They also can be counted on to make things worse or cause trouble when needed for the plot. And because their actions are deliberate, the consequences have so much more tension and impact than an accident or something contrived for plot reasons.
How you can use this: Nasty characters with agendas can cause bad things to happen in ways that seem plausible. They also add tension, because you wonder how far will this person go. They can be unpredictable, vengeful, petty--and anything can happen with a person like that.
(More on non-antagonist bad guys)
6. It's all personal.
Every character in this show has something to win or lose. So when things happen, someone is affected by it, usually multiple people in various ways. Nothing happens just to happen.
Why this works: The sense that even the smallest event can drastically alter someone's life is powerful. It makes you want to watch and see what happens next. It also makes you pay attention to what's going on, because you know it'll matter somehow, even if it's not clear when it first occurs.
How you can use this: Don't have things happen without it mattering to someone. Even if all it does is affect a small character who only interacts with the protagonist a few times, let that have an impact in some way. Let your world and story change the lives of your characters so readers watch and wonder what each thing will do.
(More on making readers care)
7. The unexpected, out-of-your-control happens.
For the Abbey, it was World War I. Just when they think things are working out--BAM! The world explodes. It's a nice reminder than sometimes, events larger than the people of the story occur, and those events can change lives in ways no one ever saw coming.
Why this works: Sometimes you need outside forces to shake up a story or send it in a way the characters themselves can't. Plots in the Abbey had played themselves out as far as they could, and forcing the issues would start feeling contrived. Add a war that changes everything, and suddenly the petty problems become less vital, and the important problems become more so.
How you can use this: Sometimes things going wrong for the protagonist every single time starts to feel forced. You'd have to make your protagonist act like a total idiot for them to make a mistake or cause a problem. There's nothing you can do to make things worse or muck up the works, but you still need things to go wrong. An outside event could be the right answer to that.
Even on a smaller level, things can happen in the world or character's life that are outside their control and have serious effects. It doesn't have to be WWI-level drama to make it work. Something a character couldn't possibly see coming works just as well.
(More on the unexpected)
Downton Abbey is a wonderful study on tension and how small things can be just as gripping as huge action events--often more so because they're so personal.
Writing exercise time! (CONTEST CLOSED)
Write a tension-filled scene of 250 words or less.
But here's the catch: It can't be a traditional life or death scene. No one held at gunpoint, no dire harm about to befall someone. Make it quiet and personal, tension created through personal conflict, not through action-movie style situations.
Deadline for entries is next Monday, April 22, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, April 23rd. Leave entries in the comments.
Winner gets a 1000-word critique. Previous winners are ineligible to win, but they can still do the exercise if they want. You can even do the exercise even if you don't want a critique (not everyone has something ready). Just say you're doing it for fun and I won't count you.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound