Sunday, December 08, 2013


AS A WRITER, HAVE YOU EVER PAINTED YOUR PROTAGONIST into a corner, with no idea of how to get them out of the trouble they’re in? Or do you sense those corners ahead, and avoid them? If the former, good for you. You’ve likely led your reader along to this difficult place. If the latter - that you tend to shy away from allowing some of the worst things to happen to your characters, don't. This is the stuff of engaging reading. Push yourself harder, give it some thought, and come up with something original and unexpected. Now do it again, and again, and again, each time making the situation more serious. This is how you build dramatic tension.

The slush pile is a great educator for learning how ‘not ‘ to handle any number of fictional elements. The following are some of the errors I’ve seen that limit, weaken, or outright kill dramatic tension: 

1.       You Should Have Been There: your protagonist is a bystander, reporting terrible events that happened to him after the fact, or those that happened to a secondary character (but luckily, not to the protagonist). After the fact or second-hand reporting removes immediacy. To illustrate my point, which would be more involving to hear? A character, relating what occurs moment by moment, as they watch an oncoming semi veer into their path, or them, describing the crash later, after they’re out of the hospital? Readers live vicariously through our protagonists. Give them a visceral, exciting experience.When you report second-hand, your dramatic tension is zero.
2.       Day-in-the-Life:  the plot meanders along, offering a snapshot of the protagonist’s story. Usually, the writer is working strongly from theme, or they're trying to present an entertaining (or sad) character.This type of story works better for novel length fiction, where it has time to pursue the strangeness or quirkiness of a character and his situation. Think The Big Lebowski. Even though the movie is about a stranger time in Dude's life than usual, it has enough room to present a rising set of unfortunate and crazy events. We're left at the end of the movie feeling entertained, and suspecting that Dude's life will carry on, no doubt with new and more insane things happening.
3.      No problem: when the plot gets interesting because some problem occurs to the protagonist, the writer solves it too easily, or the story ends. This is a case of dramatic build-up with no satisfying finish. This is more of a problem in short fiction than long.
4.      Predictability: the events lead the reader to guess the end, and they’re right. Avoid being predictable by doing the unpredictable (but keep in mind the unpredictability must be in keeping with your characters’ abilities and temperament, and it must be plausible for the situation). If an outcome only makes sense to occur as you’ve plotted it, then stay the course, but alter it slightly. Throw in a surprise. Be careful not to be too obvious with any foreshadowing (or once again, you'll become too predictable).
5.   Lack of motivation: whenever I falter when writing a scene, I ask myself, "What, in this moment, does my protagonist really want? How is he being thwarted?" Usually, motivation, or the lack of a reason to drive the scene, is the problem. I find if I make my character's motivations clearer and more direct, the scene and story are stronger.

So, if those five above are about what not to do, what can you do? How do you ramp up your Dramatic Tension?

1.      Urgency:  a problem that needs to be solved in a specific (and often impossibly short) length of time, creates tension. More tension results when the problem is solved, but with unforeseen and worse results - which makes the situation even more desperate and urgent.
2.      Uncertainty:  when your protagonist doesn’t understand the danger they are in (but the reader does) suspense is raised each time something new, strange, and progressively worse occurs. Think of Stephen King’s The Shining.
3.       Lack of Control: related to point #2 above (uncertainty), the more vulnerable your protagonist is, the greater your reader’s concern. If things are happening beyond their control and they must deal with it, tension builds.
4.      Locking Horns: this should be an obvious one. When a protagonist and antagonist have desires that are diametrically opposed, tension builds, especially if the writer presents what they do to outmaneuver each other (and those things become progressively more serious/dangerous/worse) until there's an ultimate clash.
5.      Raise the Stakes:  if your protagonist wants something, give him a serious reason to want it. If you can, give him more than one reason to make his situation (and character) even more complex. The highest stakes involve matters of life and death, but life and death aren’t always literal. Dreams and self-esteem die, as well as people. When it matters hugely to your protagonist to get what he wants, or to prevent what he doesn’t, it will also matter to your reader. The key here is to think in terms of your protagonist's personal investment and why he is invested. The more invested and relate-able to the human condition, the greater the reader's sympathetic connection.

My bottom line regarding dramatic tension? Your motivation should be about making your work as interesting, immediate, and arresting as possible for the reader. Threat and conflict create engagement, where the cost of losing is high, things go from bad to worse, and nothing is easily won.

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