To kick off your 2012 writing, Jodie has kindly written and new 3-Part series on adding TENSION to your writing. Here is Part 1.
Tension on Every Page – Part I
What makes you, as a reader, put down a novel after only reading a few pages or a chapter or two? It’s almost always because, rather than getting hooked in, you’re getting bored. Your mind is wandering because the writing lacks tension. Tension and conflict are the essential elements that drive fiction forward. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Happy characters are boring, and if there is no conflict, there is no story.”
“Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Highly respected literary agent Donald Maass tells us, “Conflict is the magnet that draws reader interest, the discomfort that demands our attention.” As Maass counsels aspiring authors, “Without a doubt, the most common flaw I see in manuscripts…is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest.”
Jessica Page Morrell agrees. “There is nothing as unsatisfying and lacking in suspense as a story line where problems are easily solved, clues appear is if by magic or intuition, love is instantaneous and seldom rocky, people always agree and are agreeable, and everyday conditions never interfere with the protagonist’s comfort.”
“Plot is characters under stress.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”
James Scott Bell concurs: “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions.” So it’s not necessary or even desirable, to show nonstop edge-of-your-seat high-tension conflict – that would wear your readers out. But, as Bell says, “Even in scenes that are relatively quiet, characters can feel inner tension – worry, concern, irritability, anxiety.”
What is conflict in fiction and why do we need it? According to Maass, “Conflict is the unsettling core of events that makes us stop and look, wanting to understand, wondering what will happen, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. When the conflict level in a novel is high –that is, when it is immediate, credible, personal, unavoidable and urgent – it makes us slow down and read every word. When it is low, we are tempted to skim. We do not care. We wonder, what’s on TV?”
Your opening, and bridging conflict
Today’s best-selling novels almost all start with tension and conflict, right from the opening paragraph. This initial tension may not – and probably won’t – be the main conflict of the story, but it needs to be meaningful and intriguing, in order to draw the reader in long enough to lead up to bigger problems the protagonist faces. As Morrell points out, “The inciting incident, the first threat, sets the story in motion and tilts the protagonist off balance.”
Maass calls this initial opening tension a “bridging conflict”: “There is, in any great opening line, a mini-conflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative. Its effect lasts, oh, perhaps half a page, a little more if it is really good. After that, another electric spark of tension needs to strike us. If it does not, our interest begins to weaken and will pretty quickly fade out.”
So, to use this technique of bridging conflict, it’s best to hook the reader in right away with a series of smaller conflicts that serve to capture and keep their attention until the main conflict or first large event of the story arrives.
As Maass reveals, “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough; or perhaps, a failure to use bridging conflict to keep things going until the main problem is set.”
Give them someone they’ll want to worry about
But in order for readers to invest any interest or concern about what happens to the protagonist, they first need to actually care about him. So it’s critical to present your main character as a likeable, resourceful, smart, strong – but vulnerable and conflicted – basically warm person the readers will want to root for. And make it clear early on what he really wants or needs. Then start to set up obstacles in his path that force him to reach down deep inside himself to find inner resources and hidden strengths in order to overcome them. His ongoing struggles will form your compelling plot and will contribute to his growth as a person, making him ultimately stronger, wiser, and even more likeable.
So if you want to write a novel that sells, remember Maass’s words of wisdom: “Tension on every page is a technique that keeps readers glued to a novel…. It is a key breakout skill.”
Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.
Parts II and III will discuss practical strategies for making your novel more compelling by ratcheting up the tension on every page.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.