Posts Tagged ‘tension’

Conflict

The shape of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: I’ve already talked a bit about this (see Part I). What makes things personal for your protagonist? Whatever drives the character and invests him or her in the outcome will invest the reader as well. Maybe there’s a killer after your hero or heroine. Maybe the killer is after someone they love. Maybe they’ve been accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, something has to make the hero or heroine cares very deeply about events so that when we experience the story through their lens, we care as well.

External conflict: What is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

So, what internal and external conflicts are driving your plot? What’s keeping those pages turning? Where’s your sense of urgency?

Whether you’re writing a romance and the primary tension is whether the hero and heroine will get together or a science fiction epic about the overthrow of an evil empire, a good novel needs three things. The reader must:

  1. fear that the protagonists might fail
  2. understand the very real danger of that failure
  3. care deeply about the outcome

In order for the reader to do any of these things, of course, the author must plot out:

  1. what’s at stake
  2. what form their adversity will take
  3. what face evil will wear

There’s rarely a one-word answer for what’s at stake, since there will need to be tension throughout the book, and a single note will start falling on deaf ears. Let’s take a pretty straightforward plot for example—a hostage story. The main goal will be to get the hostages out alive. The consequences of that failure are obvious, and if the author makes the readers care about the characters, they’re emotional invested in the outcome. However, things need to happen during the story to make us believe in this danger—not just “If not this, then that,” as in “If we don’t get the money, we start killing.” Obstacles need to be thrown in the way of the this which threaten to precipitate the that. For example, legalities will prohibit actually giving the hostage-takers what they want. So people will try to go about things another way. They’ll call a negotiator. Maybe that negotiator is having a bad day, and personal issues threaten the negotiation. Maybe he or she doesn’t make it to the scene or the baddies refuse to communicate or they’re all really just playing for time. Maybe the negotiation is going well, but one of the hostage takers is less stable than the others. Or maybe one of the hostages is a hotshot and wants to play hero (or maybe =is= the hero). The important thing is that things go wrong.

If everything goes well, according to plan, there’s not much tension, there’s no suspense and the ending is a foregone conclusion.   And what about the victims? Is one in need of medication? In danger of doing something stupid that might get the others killed? In league with the baddies? Any of these wrinkles will add character to the face of adversity. You don’t want to end up with a featureless, forgettable face, but one with character, stamped with tragedy and triumphs.

Because you must also have triumphs. Just as things have to go wrong, sometimes things have to go right. A piece of the puzzle falls into place or a battle is won on the way to winning the war. Things have to go more and more wrong, tensions have to rise, but not so continuously that there’s no relief. Just as we have to believe that the good guys could fail, we need to have hope that they will win. They must have the means to fight back, otherwise the inequality of power will make any end triumph unconvincing.

Okay, so you’ve got your characters and conflicts and you’ve written the most amazing novel. Now you’re ready for the publishing process, which I’ll post tomorrow as Part III.

nexus Before I do anything at all, I want to wish a HUGE congratulations to Ramez Naam for making the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his debut science fiction novel NEXUS!  So proud!  So well deserved!

This past Saturday, the Florida chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Orlando Public Library teamed up to present a free half-day writers workshop featuring a panel and break-out sessions with  Jessica Khoury, Jessica Brody, Amy Christine Parker, Christina Farley, Vivi Barnes, J.A. Souders and Anna Banks.   I may be a bit biased, being one of the presenters myself, but it was a great day.

A few people asked about notes for my talk, and I promised to write them up for my blog, thus here they are.  Some of the information here I grabbed from previous posts I’ve done, so there might be parts here that are familiar to some viewers!

The Publishing Process: From Gaining our Attention through Publication

Of course, it all starts with your manuscript, so I want to talk a bit about standing out from the crowd.

First of all, don’t take the easy way out.  Don’t do what’s common or expected.  Don’t do something anyone else can do.  When you’re generating ideas, it’s often a good idea to throw out your first two or three thoughts.  They come quickly and easily because they’re rote.  You’ve seen them and heard them before.  They’ve been done, many times over.  Push yourself beyond those first few ideas.  Challenge yourself.

Come up with something unique, whether it be your character or storyline…or better yet both.  Just as you don’t want your storyline to be predictable or cookie-cutter, you don’t want to people your novel with stereotypes or cardboard characters.  You should know more about your people than ever make it onto the page.  If someone were to ask their favorite ice cream or how long they take in the bathroom, you should be able to answer without thought.

Don’t shy away from tension or true danger.  Your reader needs to truly fear for the emotional or physical wellbeing of your character.  Torture your characters/torture your reader.  It sounds cruel, but it’s honest.  Remember that in every scene there should be something at stake.

What often takes a novel from okay to amazing is the voice.  Your voice, your point of view character, is the lens through which we see the world.  Think of it this way—if you have two children and both told you about the same fight, would it sound the same?  No, it would have a slant…about who was at fault, who started things, who did what to whom.  Some details would make it in and others would be left out.  What words would be used?  Would they be uttered in anger?  In a rush, tumbling over each other?  What would the body language be?  Whoever’s POV we’re in should be distinctive and unique and they should have an angle on things. Everyone has an angle.  (Not necessarily a bad angle.  Someone might give too many chances or see the best in everyone rather than the worst, but his/her personality and experiences will lead him or her to treat an event or individual in a certain way.)

Okay, so we’ve got great stories and great characters.  What else?  Well, great writing, of course.  Your first draft is often just that…drafty.  It should never be the product that goes out the door.  Amy Christine Parker and I did a vlog for YA Rebels on Revisions, which I’ll post below, but here are some quick notes based on beginning mistakes I see time and again:

-Do your best to rid your manuscript of waffle words, like “just,” “only,” “seemed to”.  Also, “she decided,” “he thought,” “she mused”…that sort of thing. Thought tags like this are the equivalent of said-bookisms in dialogue.  (For example: “I hate you!” she shouted angrily.)  Some things are understood and telling them to us is redundant.  Show, don’t tell.  This will make your writing much more immediate.

-Avoid passive voice. For example: Passive: “The door opened to admit her;” Active: “Benny slammed the door open at her knock, shocking her back a step…”  As you can tell, the second option is much more effective.

-Go back over emotional scenes particularly.  Chances are you shied away from the true depth and these need to be further explored now that the full context surrounds them.

-Make sure you have sensory and physiological details where appropriate.  For example, if someone’s running for his/her life or being kissed for the first time, the body will react.  Blood flow will increase or rush to certain parts of the body.  Breathing will change…

-Make sure every scene is told in the right point of view, that of the participant, not the observer.

-If you’ve jigged when you should have jogged and gone down the wrong path with your novel, now is the chance to change that.  You’ll hear many professional writers say that they write two or three books for every one published.  That’s because of how much they throw out and start again or how much is rewritten beyond recognition.  I won’t say that first-drafting is easier, but revisions are where the real work comes in!  (At least for me.)

-Make sure that you’ve revised your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  Then put it away for a few weeks to a month and look again with fresh eyes.  Readers and critique partners are invaluable in this process as well, because they don’t know what you meant to put down on the page.  They only know what’s there, and they can help you discover sections that came out differently than intended or plot points that didn’t come through at all.

-Mantra: Thou shalt send out no manuscript before it’s time.

Next, I discussed the querying process, what an agent does and what a publishing house does for you.  Since I’ve covered these things in previous posts, here are those links:

Finding an Agent

The Role of Agents in the Modern Publishing Landcape

Querying, Part 1

Querying, Part 2

Querying, Part 3

What a Publisher Does (aka It Takes a Village)

Other links you might find helpful that I offered in a hand-out:

My blog

My author website

Knight Agency website

TKA submission guidelines

Association of Authors’ Representatives

The SFWA Writer Beware site

Preditors & Editors

Worldbuilding

Characters

Defining Moments

Suspense/Tension

YA Rebels vlog on Revisions:

Kalayna Price had me at “hello.”  Seriously, the opening of the Alex Craft series is like a textbook example of how to hook readers right out of the gate.  Check it:

The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him.  As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five a tthe time, so he eventually forgave me.  Some days I wished he hadn’t—particularly when we crossed paths on the job.  — from GRAVE WITCH

Since then she’s continued to impress me with her voice, her characters and, yes, her wicked streak.  I hope you’ll enjoy her guest blog and that you’ll leave a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of one of her books.  The latest, GRAVE MEMORY, will release on Tuesday, July 3rd!

                                                           

Okay, but it’s going to cost you.

In life most of us avoid conflict. We don’t necessarily take the easy path, but we’d rather avoid the old Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The smoother ride is preferred.

In fiction, the opposite is true.

Characters are put through the wringer and given two bad paths to choose from. Why? Not because the writers are evil overloads who wish to torture their unsuspecting characters, but because conflict creates interest and forces character growth. A story in which everything went well for the character and around each turn something even better happened would be like sitting down and tackling an entire triple chocolate cheesecake. The first couple bites might be decadent, but it would get sickening fast. No fun.

So we make it hard for our characters. We give them no good place to turn. We make every action count and each one come at a cost.  This cost may be major or minor and might be physical or emotional, but it has to hold a proportional amount of weight in comparison with what is at stake. It also has to affect to story, not just be thrown in there to create false conflict. If the cost is easily sidestepped or has no bearing on the story, it isn’t good conflict, and the reader probably won’t care.

How do you find this cost? Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen in the situation you are dealing with (or make a list of worse-case scenarios) and then find a compelling reason why the character has no other choice but take that route. Note the words “compelling” and “no other choice.” If the reader is sitting in their seat thinking, “Why didn’t the character just . . . “ the writer hasn’t done their job well and the suspension of belief is broken.

Of course, all these hard choices and agonizing decisions pay off in the end. They force the character grow so that in the final challenge, they can succeed—at least partially.  Depending on your genre, boy might get girl, the killer found, the bad guy foiled, and/or the world saved. For now.

Hey, we all like our cake at the end, right?

________________________

Check out Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft novels (GRAVE WITCH, GRAVE DANCE and GRAVE MEMORY) and Haven series on her website.  Follow her on Twitter.

Tension

Posted: November 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I hope that everyone had a glorious Thanksgiving!  I did something I almost never do…went nearly off the grid.  While I did a lot of work (reading, writing…), I mostly spent the long weekend in realtime with family and friends, so social media fell a bit by the wayside.  In the immortal words of Madeleine Kahn from Blazing Saddles, “I feel refreshed.”

So, I’m back.  I can promise anyone who ever told me to get stuffed that I have taken their advice, and I’m over at Magical Words today with a post chock full of tension and suspense.