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Write On, Wednesday: Keeping Tension on Every Page

By Leslie Lindsay

You hear a lot about tension. It’s in the news. “Tension in the Middle East,” the bug-eyed Write on, Wednesday:  Imagine a Better Writerbeauty behind the camera chirps on your  television. It’s in your shoulders after carrying the world right there, spread between your shoulder blades. Middle East and all. Tension is in your exercise band during your weekly “Body Sculpting” class at the gym.

Tension is also in that novel your reading. Or writing. At least it better be.

So what’s the deal with tension?

Well, no one wants to read about unicorns and puppies. Well, maybe 2nd graders do. But you better believe that even in that early grade chapter book there’s bound to be some trouble with those puppies.

Trouble is intriguing.

Trouble is fun.

Trouble keeps you turning the pages.

Okay, so it may not be “trouble” as in something a child gets into. “You got into trouble again?! What am I going to do with you?” Trouble is a loosely generated term meaning “conflict,” or “tension.”

Think of what you are currently reading. Does it keep you up at night? Then you must be turning the pages, dying to find out what it going to happen in the next scene, right?

Now think of a so-so book you’ve read of late. You could sit it down at the dentist’s office and not give one hoot that you left it there. That book might be low on tension.

There are some other writerly words that go along with trouble/conflict/tension and they are:

DESIRE: What the character wants. It could be anything from a new car, to being heard, to getting a new job. Make it clear and make it matter.

STAKES: the consequence of not getting what the character wants. Your character needs to matter (to you the writer, and to you the reader. Successful characters clearly matter to both reader and writer). Let’s take a brief lesson from James Scott Bell for raising character stakes:

  • How can things get emotionally wrenching for your lead?
  • What threatens not just defeat, but may destroy her spirit?
  • Psychological death (loss of some kind)
  • Who does your lead care about? How can that person (character) get in trouble?
  • Is there a “ghost” from that past that can show up and lead the character to inner grief?

SYMPATHY: Okay, so if you’ve successfully spelled out your character’s desires and added stakes. Then you’ve created this elusive thing called character sympathy. And that, my friend is what will keep those pages turning.

Oh, and the next time you’re in Body Sculpting class, opt for the green bands; they are much easier than those blasted red ones. And guess what? They still keep the tension.

Next week: So excited to have Elizabeth Little here talking about her debut fiction/mystery/thriller DEAR DAUGHTER (Viking, July 31 2014). Stay tuned…

[for more information on tension and James Scott Bell, see WRITE GREAT FICTION: PLOT & STRUCTURE by Writer’s Digest Books, 2004. DEAR DAUGHTER cover images retrieved from author’s website, http://www.elizabethlittle.com on 8.20.14]

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