How to Create Tension In Your Story

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Conflict is story

At the core of every story is conflict. Conflict keeps us engaged and wanting to read on. It’s meaningful and relatable, and why we love stories. This conflict must be powerful, deep and complex enough that it requires an entire novel to resolve.

How do writers technically create conflict?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure the stakes are high enough – If your main character doesn’t stand to lose much, no one will care about the ending. If true love, or life and death, or a great moral dilemma fill your story, then readers will want to go on turning the pages.
  2. The opening scene must contain a mini conflict – The purpose of this is to hook your reader in by revealing key aspects of your main character while also alluding to the nature of the broader conflict they face. Opening scenes are a taster aimed at drawing the reader in for more.
  3. You must have complex and engaging characters who want different, opposing things – Given that stories are character driven, your main character needs to have many sides, and be flawed, relatable and want something badly that isn’t easy to obtain. Pitting characters who have different goals against each other creates friction and is how your characters reveal who they truly are.
  4. Conflict must be inner as well as outer – The protagonist must face internal conflict as well as some outer struggle. Stories are often about journeys of the self, about change and transformation. This must be reflected at every level in every chapter in the moral dilemmas the character has to deal with while facing opposing outer forces.
  5. The threat must be constant and immediate – The reader must feel the danger at every turn meaning in every scene and chapter. Readers shouldn’t be allowed to forget what’s at stake for a moment.
  6. Ensure the action happens in the present – While short flashbacks (no more than 1-2 paragraphs) can reveal character, they aren’t immediate. Instead, reveal character in small bites and through what they do. Keep readers in the moment by staying in the moment.
  7. Every word must count – Each word you write counts. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. In particular, use strong nouns and verbs that reflect the kind of issues at stake in your story. Likewise, if a scene doesn’t reflect the theme and move your story forward, then get rid of it. No one wants to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.
  8. Include scene and chapter arcs – Every scene and chapter has an arc – a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end. These components build towards the novels’ overall story arc, building tension as they go.
  9. Everything should reflect tension – The environment, the characters, the music, the smells, the colours and the weather are just some things that can reflect tension, building atmosphere in support of your story. If your character is sad, the sky can be cloudy, if they’re tense, traffic around them can be chaotic.
  10. Believe in your story and tell it passionately – If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Your story therefore needs to be something that you MUST tell. This will keep you writing and rewriting to perfection. Remember not to be too hard on your first draft. Add layers in the redrafts.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
Barbara Kingsolver

Embed drama in your story

Drama drama drama…

As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…

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How to research your novel & what it brings

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I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.

Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:

  1. Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
  2. Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
  3. Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films,  documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
  4. Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
  5. Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
  6. Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
  7. Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
  8. Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
  9. When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.

 

How to write the second novel

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  1. New Book, New Process
    You learned how to write your first novel. Now you have to learn how to write your second. This is an old but true adage. If you want each successive book to be good or better than the last, challenge yourself to grow. Throw out the rules and remain open.

    ‘Each time you write something, part of you grows. You’re training your artistic muscles to find your voice.’
    Pen Densham

  2. New Skills
    You’ll probably need new skills if you want to be true to the new theme and characters. These might include learning how to write different characters, changing point of view, writing in another tense, changing your style or using different techniques such as alternating chapters or bending timelines, conducting deep research, visiting new places or interviewing people. Whatever your story requires.

    ‘When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you’ve got a good writer.’
    Theodore Sturgeon

  3. First Drafts Are Rubbish
    Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Remember, you probably worked on your first book for ages, editing and honing it until it was fit for publication. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how woeful your first draft was. Don’t expect that just because you’ve completed one novel, the next will come out equally polished. You’ll need to go through the same torturous, creative process of redrafting over again until your true and best story emerges. 

    ‘The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.’ 
    Robert Cormier

  4. Abandon Fear
    Fear of failure can be debilitating. This is especially the case if you enjoyed some success with your first book. Don’t expect the same kind of story to emerge. Don’t expect success. Or failure. This story is different, so let it emerge and grow organically. Trust and believe in yourself. Authenticity will get you through. 

    ‘Don’t wait for the world to believe in you. Believe in yourself first. It’s faster and more efficient.’ 
    Milli Thornton

  5. Stick With It
    Give your new work a chance. I know so many people with abandoned second books because they didn’t meet their own or others’ demands. Ignore doubting or prescriptive voices and write for the sake of it. You’ve planted a seed, now nurture it. Get back to good writing habits. Do, don’t overthink.  

    A writer’s only responsibility is to his art.’
    William Faulkner

  6. Know You’re Not Alone
    Plenty of writers struggle with the second novel. It’s a part of the writing life. Know that others have faced this challenge and worked their way through it. You can too.

    ‘Every writer I know has trouble writing.’
    Jospeh Heller

Stoke your creative fires

While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?

‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Albert Einstein

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