Thursday, September 06, 2007

How to get tense

Not in real life. Although I could tell ya stories....

No, today (and for another few blog posts) I'm going to be talking about putting dramatic tension into your stories. I'm going to break it down into three sections: characters, conflict and raising the stakes.

Today, I'm going to talk about characters.

First and foremost, unless your readers care about your characters, they aren't going to care what happens to them. You can come up with the most astonishing, creative plot twists and turns, but unless the reader sympathizes with and relates to the people these things are happening to, they won't care about the book. They'll stop reading, or be left dissatisfied at the end.

There are plenty of writing books out there that talk about creating compelling, interesting and sympathetic characters, so I'm not going to repeat those lessons. However, I do have a few points for you to ponder.

Don't think about your characters as characters. Think of them as people. You're telling a story about people. Not real people and yes, you are the master of their universe, but I think it helps if you yourself call them people.

There's also a reason writers are told not to load the front of the story with the characters' histories and motivations. If you do that, you're losing an opportunity to create dramatic tension. You want your reader asking questions. Why did he do that? What's her problem? If you give them all the answers in the beginning, they won't be anxious to find out more.

Now, there is a line between intriguing and frustrating. That's why one doles out the information. You give a little, not all. Answer one question, but raise another. The question/answer dance can provide a lot of tension.

You can give your characters a secret. You can reveal it fairly soon, so that the reader wonders, "When will the other characters find out and what will they do then?" Or you can reveal it slowly, in tiny steps, so that the complete secret isn't known to the reader until the end of the book. Either way works, and both will add tension.

Here's a really good suggestion from Novelists' Boot Camp by Todd Stone. Give your characters an audience. In other words, make their success or failure public. (I've done this -- trial by combat, for instance -- but I've never seen it articulated before.) This adds to the tension for the character and, therefore, the reader.

Of course, all these elements work best when your readers are invested in the character. Or should I say, your people.

One thing that doesn't work, and I've seen this a lot in unpublished romances, is that writers attempt to create sympathetic characters by loading them down with issues and a terrible childhood. Certainly, they can have all these things, but many a time I'm thinking, "Lighten up, Francis!"

Because there's also a line between sympathetic (and I really think "empathetic" is a better word for what the writer should be aiming for) and pathetic, which is how these characters can come across. If your character does have a lot of baggage, I don't want to hear every detail from the start. It's like being stuck at party listing to a stranger whine about his or her last relationship. No, thank you! And how many people do you meet who do that? (If it's a lot, you have my sympathy. And you must look like a kind-hearted person.)

Keep the reader wondering about your character's history and motives. Make them wait for information. Answer some questions while posing others. And above all, remember your goal is to make the reader see your characters are real people, and to make them care.


Christine d'Abo said...

Great post, Margaret. I just finished judging a contest where I had more than a few entries with the childhood issues you described. Funny enough, the story I like the most, the heroine came from a good background. Her strength and confidence helped her deal with her current crisis. Far more interesting to read.

Leah Braemel said...

Margaret, your timing is eerie. My critique partners were just discussing this a couple days ago - how too many novels - published novels - have a repeating theme of anchoring the hero's vulnerability as a needy or abused child and it just makes us think "grow up and get over it".

Margaret Moore said...

Fiction or not, I wouldn't expect somebody to "get over" a rotten childhood. The scars are too deep. However, if they blame everything wrong in their life on that and/or use it an excuse for selfish actions, then I'm not inclined to be sympathetic.

So it's not the "what" so much (what happened in the past) as the "how," (how the author reveals that history) that determines my reaction to a character's history and/or motivation.