Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page. Part III

17 Jan

Tension on Every Page, Part III

In parts I and II of this series, we discussed the importance of showing tension on every page of your novel; specifically, creating a gripping opening, using bridging conflict, leaving out the boring bits, and making every scene compelling. Here, we’ll take it one step further to give tips on creating complex characters with complex problems, continually complicating the issues and raising the stakes, and writing a satisfying conclusion.

Create a complex, many-faceted, determined, sympathetic protagonist

Readers won’t start to worry about a character they don’t care about. Make your main character interesting, multidimensional, determined, clever, and likeable – but with inner conflicts – and give readers enough detail about him early on to make them empathize with him and start to bond with him.

Create complex problems with escalating conflict
The more complex and challenging the problems your protagonist faces, the more compelling a read it will be for your readers. And as your hero struggles to overcome the odds, raise the stakes even more. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “As your protagonist becomes more and more entangled in obstacles, make certain that what he fears most is on the stage. […] Then, as these fears are exposed, toss a wrench into his plan.”

And his problems and conflicts need to be difficult and complex enough so readers don’t see an immediate solution, which would dissipate all the tension. As Donald Maass says, “Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts, on the other hand, stick in our minds, nagging for our attention.”

Also, in terms of fiction technique, Maass specifies, “conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen and grow. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. To break out, simple plot structures need high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflicts.”

So how can you improve the plot of your breakout novel and make it more compelling? According to Maass, the solution is to “make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.”

“In breakout fiction, the central conflict is as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.” – Donald Mass


The problems also need to be serious enough, and the antagonist clever, determined, and nasty enough that they’re worthy of your hero, so he’s sufficiently challenged to create a compelling story, and his struggle results in definite character development and growth. (See my article, “Creating a Worthy Antagonist”.)

In summary, Donald Maass spells out in detail the kind of ongoing, deepening tension needed for creating a page-turner, a breakout novel: “Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved, and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.”

On the other hand, “Problems that are abstract, remote, trivial, ordinary, easily overcome, and/or happening to someone for whom we feel little … cannot fuel a gripping novel.”

The five essential plot elements, according to Maass, are: sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution.

And of course, in fiction, we want all or most of the problems and conflicts to be resolved at the end, for greatest reader satisfaction – but preferably in a surprising way, with an unexpected plot twist, and resonance. As James Scott Bell say, “The key is to leave readers satisfied in an unpredictable way.”

Maass sums it up: “So, what is it about conflict that makes a story a story?

* It makes us care by bonding us to a character.
* It sustains our interest through constant development and escalation.
* Finally, at its unavoidable peak, it brings us face-to-face with our deepest anxieties.
*If we face them and prevail, our anxieties are relieved. In the resolution, we enjoy peace.”  (Jodie’s bullets)

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

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


Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing


4 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page. Part III

  1. L.J. Sellers

    January 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Great advice, Jodie. The hardest of those five elements is resolution. Several novels I’ve read lately carried me all the way through, then fell flat in the end. As an author, I try really hard to come up with unique, eventful, and satisfying endings. But each time it feels more challenging.


  2. Jodie Renner

    January 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    LJ, having read 6 of your novels, you seem to be a master of the surprise ending – they always end with a delightfully unexpected twist! I can well imagine it would be challenging doing that once, much less 9 or 10 times, as you have!

    But I agree – I hate it when a novel falls flat at the end. So disappointing. Also, I like a satisfying ending, where the hero triumphs over evil! Don’t give me those wishy-washy, question-mark endings! 🙂


  3. Tracy Brown (@mstracybrown)

    January 20, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Hi Jodie,

    I just found your article today after following a path from a comment on Jody Hedlund’s blog, to your own blog site, to this guest post series. Thank you for sharing your observations and advice.

    To chime in regarding resolution, I agree that it’s painful when a great novel takes a nosedive at the end. One of my favorite tension-laden books has a resolution so weak, it broke my reading heart. I wanted to ask the author what happened. Even so, I still put this book in my “favs.” The storyline and characters were incredibly compelling and I couldn’t put the book down. I do recommend it to others, but also I warn them they might feel a little let down at the end.

    Thank you again for these posts, Jodie. Points I need to keep in mind as I write!


    • Jodie Renner

      January 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks so much for your comments, Tracy. And that’s another topic for an article on compelling fiction – which is more important, an opening that hooks you in or an ending that satisfies and delights you? I’d say they’re both so important! You won’t keep reading the book if the opening doesn’t grab you, but the ending is what leaves a lasting impression with you, and if it’s unsatisfying or frustrating, that can leave a bad taste in your mouth about that story or author.



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