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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Is the cost of a writing mentor, editor or manuscript assessment worthwhile?

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There can be great value in paying a professional to help you develop your manuscript and writing skills. But it’s not cheap and there can be pitfalls resulting in wasted money and blows to your confidence.

Here are some tips to help you work out whether hiring one or more of these experts might be worthwhile, and if so, how to choose the right person for you and your work. Remember, if you going pay someone to help improve your work, they will find things wrong with it. So finding the right person at the right stage of drafting is crucial.

I’ve used two editors for my manuscript (which recently attracted a publisher) along with a mentor. I’ve also had a manuscript assessment done. Two of these processes were great learning experiences, one was a disaster and the other was poor value for money.

What do mentors, editors and manuscript assessors do?

Mentors

Engaging a mentor is a medium-priced avenue of paid support that sounds great—hiring an experienced author you respect who understands the ups and downs of the writing process to provide you with detailed one-on-one coaching.

But being a published author doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a good mentor. A good mentor sees this work as part of their profession, not just as easy money.

I went through a writer’s centre and engaged a mentor under agreed written terms, which included assessing 3-4 chapters at a time because I wanted guidance as I redrafted so as not to repeat mistakes. The mentor quickly reneged on those, saying they preferred to look at whole manuscripts only. Also, their comments revealed that they didn’t understand my genre and had made many incorrect assumptions. When I questioned them about their feedback in a genuinely inquisitive way, they became defensive. Nothing positive came from this expensive experience for me.

Editors

A full copy edit includes an experienced editor looking at your entire manuscript and considering structure, voice, point of view, character and style. They present their findings in a report, but also do a line edit, checking each word through track changes. This is the most expensive of the three processes and theoretically the most thorough, although I’ve found that editors’ attention wanes the further they progress into your manuscript.

It’s most important when choosing this option to be certain that your manuscript is at the right stage. Too early and you won’t get value for money because your draft is underdeveloped and not yet ready. This is what happened to me and I feel the editor should have warned me. Too advanced and all the editor will be left with is nit-picking, which can be bad for confidence.

During my second-to-last draft, I engaged a different editor to look at the first third of my novel line by line because by this stage I was most interested in improving my style as opposed to dealing with structural or other big picture issues. I then applied what I learned to the rest of my manuscript, which lifted my writing considerably.

Manuscript Assessments

This is a 10-12 page report that looks at the same issues as an editor but without the additional line edit. Often, the assessor will also ask you to submit a synopsis, publisher letter, author bio and pitch for comment, which can be very useful. This is by far the cheapest, and I think the best value option.

I went through an agency to get my manuscript assessment done. I was thrilled that they matched me with an assessor who was obviously across my genre, thorough, professional and concise. Quality, not quantity, was what this assessment was about.

Guidelines for choosing writing support:

  • Do your research to find the right person for you and your manuscript. What’s their experience, do they understand your genre, are they interested in your manuscript, are they over committed, are you a good personality fit, will they talk through their thoughts with you or write them down? Ask other writers for recommendations and interview each candidate. You can even test them out with a chapter of your work (many will agree to this)
  • Set agreed terms in writing so there’s no confusion. This might include stating the aims of your partnership, how much of your work they’ll review and within what timeframe, the price and what level of comment they’ll provide (high level overview and/or detailed word for word)
  • Any feedback must be constructive, aimed at supporting and bettering your work, not pulling it (or you) down. You want to come out more empowered and your work stronger
  • The person you engage must allow you to retain control of your work rather than forcing their personal preferences on you. A good teacher will help you find what it is you really mean to say
  • They also need to be confident in themselves, welcoming questions without feeling threatened
  • Whoever you hire, they must be professionally interested in your work and not just your money.

‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius

 

 

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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Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

How do I choose a point of view?

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So you’re beginning a new novel. A flurry of ideas fills your head. It’s exciting. You consider them all, dismiss most, others you put in the maybe category, but some stick. You build on them, but you worry if anything is going to result. Is your idea gripping enough to fill an entire novel, will the story peter out, do you care enough to finish it, are you capable? You’re compelled to go on.

Now that you have an embryo of an idea, and perhaps one or two characters who reach out to you, there’s a decision to be made over point of view (POV).

1st person: ‘I’

Traditionally one point of view allowing intimacy – the reader seeing the entire story world through one character. But there are more options – multiple first person point of views, sequential multiple viewpoints (e.g. alternate chapters with told from more than on ‘I’), separate multiple viewpoints that are seemingly disparate but come together in the end. So many possibilities!

2nd person: ‘You’

This POV be powerful and immediate, but not easy to pull off. Usually these stories are also told in the present tense. One memorable Australian novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell), is told from this point of view. I still remember that voice.

3rd person:  ‘S/he’

Limited – Told from one character’s point of view at a time. But you can have more than one main character in separate sections, eventually bringing them together. It’s similar to 1stperson but can feel more distant. This is the most commonly used POV in modern fiction.

Omniscient – Told from multiple characters’ points of view, dipping in and out of their heads as though taking a birds eye view. A more limited omniscient POV exists where the reader is in one character’s head at a time rather than skipping around or taking an overall perspective. Generally, omniscient is so popular these days. But it can be done well.

Some things to ponder, bearing in mind that point of view is the narrator, who is the reader’s eyes and ears:

  • Who’s story is this?
    Is it one person’s story? Is it two people’s? Or is it multiple characters’ story?
  • Whose head, and how many heads, do I want the reader to be in?
    One character’s and close (1stperson). One character’s, close and immediate (2ndperson). Two character’s (1stor 3rdperson limited) or everyone’s (3rdperson omniscient).
  • What am I trying to achieve?
    If you want to manipulate the reader say with an unreliable narrator, then 1stperson is for you. If you want to sound like a fairy tale, use 3rdperson omniscient. If you want something in between, consider 3rdperson limited.
  • How immediate do I want the story to feel?
    In order of immediacy: 2nd person, 1st person then 3rd (limited, limited omniscient and omniscient).
  • How much do I want the reader to know?
    If you want the reader to know only what one character sees consider the 1stperson POV, but 3rd person limited can also be used though with less range. If you want them to see the entire picture, then use 3rd person omniscient (but perhaps limited).
  • How close, or distant, do I want the reader to be to the main character/s?
    1st person creates greater intimacy i.e. the reader is the 1stperson narrator. 3rd person limited can be more distant but offers considerable closeness too. 2nd  perron is in your face close. Dropping in and out of different character’s heads in 3rdperson omniscient gives you immense freedom but requires technical competency.
  • How much versatility do I want?
    1st person lets you only have one point of view i.e. one voice. They’d wanna be someone your reader can relate to and wants to spend an entire novel with. I know I’ve got sick of main characters and stopped reading well into a story.
  • How important is backstory and world building?
    This can be easier to convey in 3rdperson omniscient. That said, these should always be written as the story requires in small sections (never more than two paragraphs is my general rule).

What next?

Ask yourself the above questions and experiment. Write a page or two from two or three POVs and see what feels/reads best. You’ll soon know what suits your story, even if by realising out what DOESN’T work.

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.