Sunday, December 11, 2016
Storytelling is All About Tension
Many beginning writers start out their story with a hook that grabs the reader. But then the writer must explain the hook before continuing on with the story. That’s the opposite of escalation—and the end of the forward movement of the story.
Tension drives a story forward. When you resolve tension, you lose the momentum of your story. Many books on writing short stories differentiate between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories. In fact, neither character nor plot drives a story forward—only unmet desire does.
You might include page after page of interesting information about your character, but that won’t move the story along, either. It just causes it to stall. Until readers know what your protagonist wants, they won’t know what your story is about and won’t be able to worry or care about whether or not the character’s desires are eventually met.
Plot is a series of related events that the protagonist experiences as he or she moves through a crisis or into a life-changing situation. You might include chase scene after chase scene, but readers won’t care that one car is following another down the street, until they know what the stakes are. If you don’t spell out what the result will be, they simply won’t care. A story isn’t driven forward by events but by tension. Therefore, all stories are “tension-driven” stories.
In order to deepen the tension in your story, you’ll need to create two struggles that play off each other. The protagonist’s external struggle is a problem that you need to resolve. His or her internal struggle is a question that you need to answer. The interplay of these two struggles complement each other until, at the climax, the resolution of one gives the protagonist the skills, insights or wherewithal to resolve the other.
The genre in which you write will force you to use certain conventions that will dictate the precedence of the internal or external struggle in your story. To write successful, marketable stories, you’ll need to include both an internal struggle that helps readers empathize with the protagonist, and an external struggle that helps drive the movement of the story toward its exciting climax.
Your story needs to progress toward more and more conflict, with more intimate struggles and deeper tension to hold a reader’s interest.
The plot must always thicken. Because of that, repetition is the enemy of escalation. Every explosion, sex scene, or conversion means less and less to the reader, simply because repetition serves to work against the escalation of tension in your story.
Instead, continually make things worse for your protagonist. In doing so, you’ll make him or her better for the reader. Start out in the middle of an action and build the tension in your story until its logical conclusion.