Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Plot/structure series part V

I think this will conclude the structure series, although if anything else comes to mind I'll come back and add to it. This section is on tension.

You need tension in your story to keep your reader reading. You've all read books that were too easy to put down and not come back to. Maybe the reasons are different for different people, but too much straying from the main problem, characters with weak desires and little motivation, and not enough conflict are all snooze factors for me. So here are a few ideas of ways to increase tension that I've gathered from a variety of sources (including many critiques of my own mss):

Add a time limit--if the MC can't retrieve the magical glowing turnip by midnight, the world will end in fire and stinky cabbage.

Give your character a plan; don't let them just react. If they're driving the story the tension will naturally rise.

Even as you answer one question for the reader, plant another. Always let there be something to pull the reader through the pages until they get that answer.

Be careful about ending a chapter too restfully or with the character too contented. If they're content, make sure the reader knows something the character doesn't--like, This Is Too Good to Last.

Agent Kristin Nelson once said in a post on conflict that conflict is personal. Who cares if you save the world--what the reader really wants to know is if she can save the relationship with her best friend.

Spill to the reader early on what your MC's worst fears are--and then make them face those very fears.

Put two characters with strong (opposing) desires together and let them strive to get what they want. If the reader knows that they can't both win, yet there is no easy out for either, they'll feel the tension.

Eliminate plot arcs and details that don't lead anywhere. (Here's where working backwards from the climax to what caused it can help you locate those tangents.) Likewise, remove descriptions not strictly needed, especially at the beginning, and in scenes of great conflict/tension.

Use short sentences for action scenes.

Remove the safety nets. Make failure a real possibility, with consequences. Yes, this might mean being mean to your character! Make them go it alone instead of with the help they were counting on.

And finally, make sure you have enough conflicts. Obviously your story is based on a choice your character has to make. But to follow Miss Snark's method, it's much more interesting when both choices hold a promise of something desirable, and a threat. Otherwise, it's a no-brainer. For a satisfying climax, your MC needs to sacrifice a little, and make a real choice. Then your reader can walk away satisfied that the MC has truly overcome.


Sarah said...

Thanks for this series. These are all great posts on plot/structure.

Line by line tension is what keeps me involved in a story. Everything you mention here helps create this tension.

This is how I choose a book. I open to a random page. I read it. If I like it I'll read the back cover. I believe I am looking for two things: tension and voice.

I have an idea for an experiment. I will try it on my manuscript. I'll open to a random page and if there is no tension, use your list, choose a solution and create a better story.
I should repeat this half a dozen times.

Christy Lenzi said...

Hi Rose (and hey--there's Sarah, whatdoyaknow.)

Thanks for posting this--great stuff.

Rose Green said...

Hi Christy, and thanks! Blogger's nice visually, but harder to put on a reading list. Still, sometimes you need a place to put more formal things.

Anyhow, nice to see you here!

Carmel said...

I found your blog from a link on wordswimmer's blog (and as an aspiring middle reader novelist have bookmarked you both). I find your style of writing and teaching easy to understand and put to use. Thanks so much for sharing the knowledge you've acquired.

Paul West said...

I just found your blog from the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Chat Board. You had just responded to my comment. I appreciate your help there and, looking over what you have done here, I appreciate the articles you've written.

You have a nice blog site.