One of the most fundamental techniques of fiction writing is skillful creation of tension, sometimes referred to as conflict. Our favorite authors hook us on page one with a character so compelling that we read further to find out what happens. The character is engaging, with likeable traits that endear them to us, even if they have rough edges or find themselves in untenable situations that force a choice, a decision they wouldn’t normally make.
Therein lies a clue to a story that draws a reader in. Tension. Conflict. A mystery, a question, something out of the ordinary, an event that pushes the character out of their ordinariness. Suspense. What happens next? And why does the reader care?
Tension can be internal or external. Events that influence a character’s life are external (think plot). What goes on inside the character’s mind is internal – and don’t we all identify with (and love) characters who struggle with their own doubts yet persevere and triumph in the end? Stories have more depth if the character must face both types of conflict. Literary fiction often focuses more heavily on the internal, while suspense and thrillers lean toward the external, but the very best of any genre incorporates both.
Take some time – ten minutes or an hour – to think about your characters. What drives them? What are their core beliefs? What do they want (both their conscious goals but also their unconscious, deepest desires)? What obstacles exist to their attaining those goals? Can you come up with a Goal-Motivation-Conflict statement for each character? (Below, based on Debra Dixon’s book, Goal, Motivation and Conflict) How about doing this for an internal GMC as well as an external GMC? The best GMC statements pit the main characters against each other on all levels, with a worthy adversary throwing even more wrenches into the works. An extremely successful author friend (Katie McGarry) adds one more twist: in order for the hero/ine to achieve their highest goal (usually the internal, unconscious goal) they must sacrifice the thing that they initially thought meant the most to them.
Fill in the blanks: Sally wants ____ because ____, but ____. John wants ____ because, but ____.
Notice, this looks like the back copy of a book – and it can also serve as the basis for a pitch, either verbal or written. It also serves as a down-and-dirty template for your book, if you write without an outline.
Once you’ve come up with a general idea for your story, you can use this technique for each scene in the book. In each scene, make sure you know what’s at stake for the Point-of-View character. What does the character have to gain or lose? Make it a crucial goal (James Scott Bell refers to it as ‘death’, a risk of personal or professional failure of grand magnitude), then get right to it, using dialogue, action, reaction. Add obstacles, and let the character go to battle.
But the secret to end-of-scene suspense is…to cut away, to leave the scene before ‘the answer’ is revealed. Leave the character in a quandary, the question unanswered. Or introduce a new complication, complete with a hefty cost to the character.
These questions, both at the beginning of a scene and the end, are called ‘hooks’ for an obvious reason. Like fish, we are lured into the story, and get ‘hooked’ so it becomes difficult to put the book down. (As I glance at the bedside clock and mutter Just one more page…, then look up again a half hour and thirty pages later, realize how short on sleep I am going to be, and mutter Just one more page again! Don’t tell me you’ve never done that!)
Other strategies for managing tension include word choice and sentence structure. Choose each word carefully, to reflect the exact mood you’re trying to create. Smooth, languid words setting the stage, perhaps, then more active words leading up to an explosive eruption of emotion or action. Stretched-out, descriptive sentences for the set up; short, fast ones for the pay off.
As with all great writing techniques, there are caveats. Don’t ‘make stuff happen’ just to make stuff happen. The plot needs to unfold in a way that is authentic for the book and for your voice. Resist the urge to overdo. Hooks, suspense, tension, conflict – these can all be very subtle. Trust your reader to understand without spelling it out or hitting them over the head with it.
Tension boils down to posing a question, grappling to find an answer, then ending with another question. Do it enough times, and you have a book – a gripping book that the reader stays up way past bedtime to finish.
And that’s the kind of book you want to write!