|Will they, or wont they?|
High-stakes conflict is easy peasy to add to high-action thrillers, where the plot just begs for suspense, and there's danger lurking around every corner. Tension is a breeze in stories where every moment is life and death.
... But what if your book isn't about life and death?
... What if your book is more about life and chocolate?
In addition to it being a delicious book that I, personally, would love to read, you may find you have problem adding Tension. I've just written a book that in many ways is much quieter than my first two, and now that I'm in the editing phase, I'm diving back in to make sure that it's not TOO Quiet.
If you're in the same boat, this post is for you!
What Is Tension and How Do We Craft It?
Tension. Stress. Anxiety. Nervousness. Feeling stretched or strained. We know it when we feel it, but how do we write it?
What makes tension tense?
It's all about Uncertainty.
To explain what I mean, here's a basic formula for creating tension:
MC has a Goal + Encounters Obstacle (External, Interpersonal, or Internal) →
MC has to make Decision(s) + Act → Uncertainty
(Did they make the right decision??
Are they going to?? We don't know yet!!)
↑↑↑ This is where the tension lies.
If readers know that the MC made the right decision, did the right thing, and is going to succeed, then suddenly, the tension is gone. What keeps readers turning the pages is the uncertainty. The what if?
When you think about it that way "Is the MC going to defeat the monster that just attacked?" isn't so very different from "Did they just estrange the very person they need on their side?" In both these instances, the reader is uncertain whether or not the MC will succeed, and this creates tension. That's why cliffhangers work so well as chapter endings (see also 10 Types of Chapter-Ending Cliffhangers). When the reader doesn't know what will happen, they'll keep turning pages.
But to feel the tension, the reader has to feel the uncertainty. Barring a cliffhanger chapter or scene interruption, there are two general approaches to this:
- Make the MC Painfully Uncertain
Show the apprehension, the misgivings, the self-doubt, the guilt, the indecision, that the MC goes through before, during, and/or after each decision.
- Have the MC be Blissfully Unaware
An overconfident protagonist signals to readers that something's about to go wrong. This is a story after all, things can't be that easy!
... But Also Consider Stakes:
Okay, so we have quiet stories. Our stakes might not be life and death. But they have to be something that matters. To the MC. To the reader. Conflict alone isn't always a tension-builder. High conflict, but low stakes situations may be thought-provoking or comic, but *might* not add tension to your scene. Is there a way to increase the stakes? Can you up the cost of failure? Increase the reward for success?
Types of Tension:
Sources of anxiety and tension can come in many forms. It's often helpful to think of them in layers or levels from the more global to the more personal. Within each broader category are a number of tricks or techniques you can use to inject tension back into even the quietest of scenes. I'll list them here, then expand on each point after the break:
- External Pressures
- Setting on Edge
- Roadblocks to the Goal
- The Ticking Clock
- Unbeknownst to our Hero ...
- Reminder of a Mystery
- Small Breaking Points
- Interpersonal Conflict
- Encounter with the Enemy
- Personality Clashes
- Conflicting Values/Goals/Opinions
- It's Personal ... We've Got History
- Bad Moods
- "... What Do They Think of Me?"
- That Dude(tte) in the Way
- Inner Struggle
- Pursuing Wants not Needs
- Facing Fears
- Keeping Secrets
- Character Flaws
- Uncertainty in Decision Making
1. Setting On Edge
Sometimes, all that's needed is a change of scenery. Donald Maass often talks about several settings that lend themselves to dull chapters: kitchens/dining rooms, car rides, and living rooms. They're everyday places, so it's easy to slip into writing boring, commonplace scenes.
Instead, try someplace: foreboding, dazzling, hazardous, or anxiety-inducing. Think not only about more environmental/physical danger, an ominous thunderstorm on the horizon, a door slamming shut behind them, or a watchful stranger who's just a little off ... but also more personal things: Force the MC to visit or pass by a place where they had a tramautic experience in the past, the place where they know the antagonist lives/works/frequents, or the spot they used to go on dates with their ex.
Alternatively, use your MC's mood or sense of unease to make the comfortable places they usually love seem all wrong.
Links: Setting up Tension - Fiction University // Keep Slow Scens Moving With Foreboding - K.M. Weiland //
2. Roadblocks to the Goal
Setting up stumbling blocks or hedging the MC in may up the ante in particular scenes. Does the apprentice who really needs to get to the final exam on time get cornered by the talkative innkeeper (to whom he owes a big tab)? Does the kid who slipped out without his parents knowing forget to bring his keys to get back in? Did the store just run out of eggs right before the bake-off? Is the protagonist on the verge of flunking all their classes? Is the romantic dinner to re-kindle the marriage cut short when the babysitter calls it quits? Does the MC have money problems on top of everything else? If the sailing's too smooth, you may need to add a storm!
3. The Ticking Clock
Even in a quiet book, it's still possible to add a "countdown clock." But rather than marking off the seconds till the bomb goes off, it'll be something more subtle. For example: Twenty minutes until the guy is going to pick up the girl for the second date. Still twelve more days to wait before we get to go to Mars-World-Waterpark -- Ugh! Twenty-four hours to turn around that report to the boss. Four months until summer arrives, and with it, the sand demons.
The clock can work for both positive and negative events:
- A Countdown to "Doom"
- Delayed Gratification
Links: How to Create a Narrative Clock -- Read To Write Stories // Tick, Tick, Tension: Setting the Clock -- Fiction University // Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock - Let the Words Flow // Ticking Clock for Memoir Writers //
4. Unbeknownst to Our Hero ...
This is tricky to do in first person (for obvious reasons), but still possible if your character is a little bit clueless. Maybe they weren't reading between the lines on that memo from their colleague, or misinterpreted the body language of their current crush. Either way, the reader knows the MC's headed for disaster, even if they don't.
5. Reminder of a Mystery
You've probably strewn quite a few "mysteries" throughout your book. Until you're ready to reveal the answer, don't let readers forget! Keep these nagging questions at the forefront of readers' minds. Who was that guy who brought her flowers years ago? Who is Alice? Where is that missing binder with all the personel records? Why didn't Xander come to class? Obviously the overarching story question is the focal point of the novel, but these smaller, mini-mysteries can boost tension too.
6. Small Breaking Points
The straw that broke the camel's back, the thrice-failed flight-sim that finally wore down the intrepid pilot-to-be, the burned cake, the missed bus connection, the kids kicking over the mailbox *again.* Sometimes it's the little things that bring your MC to their knees.
Your MC doesn't have to be particularly clumsy for him/her (or someone around him/her) to mess up now and then. Accidents happen! ...Sometimes right in the middle of an otherwise slow scene! ;o)
... And don't forget to loudspeaker/viralize it. Minor foibles become SO much worse when everyone notices you screwed up.
Links: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes -- Lara Willard //
Hopefully our characters are realistic, flawed, beautifully complex people with their own set of goals, fears, and facades (don't risk the problem with overly nice characters!). When our characters get together, clashes can happen.
8. Encounter with the Enemy
This is the most obvious type of interpersonal conflict ... but an important one. If your story is getting too slow, it might be time to remind the reader of your MC's least favorite person on the planet. This doesn't necessarily mean that the antagonist needs to arrive on the scene (although amazing things might happen in the scene if they did?). Maybe the antagonist comes up in conversation. Maybe an object triggers a memory of the bully, or an event reminds the MC of the confrontation looming ahead. Keep the antagonist in the MC's mind, whether or not they actually are physically present on the page.
- Direct Confrontation
- Overhearing Antagonist
- Vivid Memory of Past Altercation
- Nagging Reminder of Upcoming Showdown or Unresolved Conflict
9. Personality Clashes
Even if two characters like each other (or at least are not sworn enemies) they are likely to have wildly different personalities. They'll respond to the same situation in disparate, and possibly divisive ways. Use these personality differences to make your MC anxious, and/or the scene uncomfortable for the reader.
Consider these potentially clashing pairings:
Introvert vs. Extrovert // Loud vs. Boistrous // Easygoing vs. Rule-Follower // Confident vs. Hesitant // Impulsive vs. Planner // Skeptical vs. Accepting // Sensitive vs. Analytical //
As a result of the personality clash, characters may begin to assign negative labels to one another, viewing the other as: "Intolerant," "Insecure," "Selfish," "Reckless," "Uneducated," "Indecisive," "Impatient," "Emotional," "Uncaring," etc. ... and this only adds to the tension.
Links: Clashing Personalities - Creative Penn // Bumpy Character Relationships - Writability //
10. Conflicting Values/Goals/Opinions
There are great opportunities for conflict if not only are characters' personalities at odds, but also their long-term and short-term goals. Maybe the MC wants to ace the exam, but her BFF just wants to go hiking; a parent wants the house cleaned before company comes, while the MC is *almost* done building the treehouse; the girl wants to read her book, but the other kids are having a noisy/messy water balloon fight, maybe the MC thinks the way to the magic phoenix is via the swamp path, but the sidekick thinks it's the mountain path ... etc.
- Clash of values/goals
- Clash of means to acheiving shared goals
Links: Good Conflict is about Clashing Values - The Write Practice // What Do The Other Characters Want? - Fiction University //
11. It's Personal ... We've Got "History"
One great way to keep tension high in scenes that are dialogue heavy is to (a) make sure all your characters have an interesting backstory coming into the scene, and (b) keep that at the forefront of your mind when writing their interactions. Give some of your minor characters a not-so-sunny history with one another. Bickering sisters, the cadet that turned everyone else in for the contraband booze on the ship all those years ago, the former-best-friend, the lady who bought that stellar property out from under the MC's nose ... etc.
Injecting subtext into your characters' dialogue is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but if your dialogue-heavy scenes are feeling a little dry, maybe you need a little more of it. Identify passages of dialogue that are too "on the nose" and add subtext!
Information-heavy dialogue, or dialogue that's too obvious (the speakers are just saying exactly how they feel) can get boring quickly. But if the real conversation is happening not in the overt words, but below the surface, that's when things get interesting.
Use the dialogue tags, or subtleties in the phrasing to show the other side of the story. Is your MC saying he's okay, when obviously he just got his feelings hurt? Is she going in for a kiss? Is he screwing up the courage to break-up? Is the BFF saying 'sure' but meaning 'no'? Are they seemingly debating over spaghetti vs. pasta alfredo, but really arguing about their decade-old argument to have/not have kids?
In short: They're talking about the weather, but they're not really talking about the weather (and on second thought, maybe don't have them actually talk about the weather, either ... unless they are weather elementals or something).
- Subtleties in Phrasing
- Body Language
- Inner Monologue
- What's NOT being said (and how obvious the omission is)
Subtext can provide the first sign that something's not quite right (or, conversely that characters are actually starting to fall for one another). But it also can be influenced by what the reader knows coming into the scene. For example, if the reader knows the characters' past history coming in, subtext that might be too subtle to pick up on otherwise will become obvious, and hopefully powerful.
Links: 9 Steps to Writing Dialogue with Rich Subtext - Calvin Harris // Subtext: Revelation of the Hidden - The Editors' Blog // 3 Ways to Create Subtext Rich Dialogue - K.M. Weiland // Creating Engaging Dialog Using Subtext - Live Write Thrive // Don't Speak: ThePower of What's Left Unsaid - Fiction University // 5 Techniques for Adding Subtext to your story //
13. Bad Moods
Everyone seem a little too happy in here? Give a secondary character a reason to be grumpy/disagreeable just when your MC is flying high. Maybe the grocery clerk just broke up with her girlfriend. Maybe the BFF failed his sandstorm-conjuring class again. Maybe the hunter couldn't find any game. Alternatively, put an extra-peppy person in the way when your MC just wants to wallow.
14. "...What Do They Think Of Me?"
A potentially huge source of conflict can come when the main character is trying so hard to be: likeable, a good student, a team player, creative, nice, friendly, etc. For these kinds of characters, what their peers think of them is a constant source of anxiety. Every slip up seems so much worse because someone noticed. Every cold shoulder feels like a huge rejection. If your character is a people-pleaser, make sure you're using this aspect of their personality to it's maxium stress-inducing potential.
15. That Dude(tte) In the Way
Maybe your MC isn't in a scene with any of the other key characters of the book, or maybe you're tired of having them butt heads. In these cases, the MC may need someone else to foil their movement toward the goal. That's okay, you just know that right around the corner there's going to be 'that dude' (or dudette) that's always cutting in front of you, taking the last donut, talking your ear off when you need to get going, playing their music too loud, mansplaining things, etc etc, etc ...
It's a small thing, but it might be just what you need to take that transition scene from dull to anxiety-inducing.
Internal Conflict / Inner Struggle
One of the most painful and poignant ways to bring conflict to your quiet pages is by cutting at the core of your character's being: at her/his deepest desires, secrets, and fears. If you don't know what those are for your MC, C.S. Lakin at Live, Write, Thrive has a great post to start you thinking along those lines. Also be sure to check out Ian Irvine's 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict.
Consider your MC's: Goals / Needs / Dreams / Secrets / Fears / Flaws
Links: The Internal Conflict Formula - Savvy Writers // A Look a Inner and Outer Conflict - Live, Write, Thrive // Internal and External Core Conflicts - Fiction University // Components of an Inner Conflict Arc - Fiction University // Invisible Tension - Writer Unboxed
16. Moral Dilemmas, Mutually Exclusive Goals, & Impossible Choices:
Create a situation in which to achieve a major or minor (story or scene) goal, the character must do something which they feel terrible about. Maybe the dilemma is directly tied to the core inner conflict of the story, but maybe the dilemma is something not as closely tied to the core story conflict. It's more of a step along the way.
- Moral/Ethical Dilemmas
For example: maybe the MC needs to lie, cheat, or steal in order to make friends/money/fame/recognition, hurt someone now to help them later, sacrifice the one for the many, maybe they've been bribed to back down on a public ethical/moral stance.
Think: Pacifism vs. justice, honesty vs. kindness/loyalty, etc.
- Mutually Exclusive Personal Goals
Make the choice a personal one, and make it a tough one. Think of two equally important goals that are mutually exclusive (or at least give all appearances of being so). Your character can't have one if they have the other. For example: "I want to win the baking competition, but I don't want to irreparably bruise my best friend's self-esteem in the process."
Not sure what these opposing goals might be for your MC? Use the "but" formula:
MC wants _____, but also wants _____ ... and MC can't have both because ______.
- Only Bad Options Left
Back your MC up into a corner. The original goal? Out of reach. Now they must choose between Terrible Option A, and Horrible Option B. Can't go to summer space camp? Now you can choose: stay with boring great-uncle Harold or dull-as-dishwater neighbor Edith.
One of the best kinds of tension in otherwise very quiet, very reflective scenes, can be when the MC is conflicted about something, and is trying to grapple with these mixed emotions. Did they make the right choice?
Links: 5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Stories Better - Writer's Digest // Character Moral Dilemmas - Kris Noel //
17. Pursuing What They Want NOT What They Need
This *might* be a little bit of a biggie; something hard to add into your story after the fact without a major revsion. But I thought it was worth mentioning anyhow.
Most of our protagonists enter into their stories and are soon launched on a journey to achieve what they needto live/thrive/survive. But what if they didn't pursue this -- not really? What if instead, they are pursuing what they *think* they want, rather than what they truly need? They're clawing their way up the ranks of the space-fighting fleet, when really what they need is to go into politics to save their planet. They're so focused on getting/keeping Ms. Right that they don't see they've lost who they are in the process. They're spending so much time getting straight A's that they don't see their little sister is going through depression.
With a little extra planning, these kinds of layers can be added into the quietest of stories.
Links: Character Wants vs. Character Needs - K.M. Weiland //
18. Force the MC to Face Their Fears
A great way to amp up the tension in a scene is to make the MC face what they're afraid of. Obviously this is pretty easy to do in a battle scene set on the edge of a windy precipice. o.O ... But that's not the only way these kinds of scenes can work. Go for subtle, rather than big and flashy. To get that final ingredient for the potion, the MC will have to go out at night; a friend is in a bad mood and the MC takes it personally; the defendant runs across a news article about all the other times this kind of case has failed; etc.
Your MC has a past, and that may mean they've been hurt by someone, developed a fear of something.
- Core Story Fears: Your MC probably has a main fear that's in part driving the story: fear of rejection, fear of being alone, losing a loved one, going bankrupt, getting fired, losing a court case, etc ...
- General Phobias: fear of heights, fear of small spaces, fear of the dark, elevators, dogs, germs, knives, tornadoes, raw meat, looking silly while dancing, dorwning, broken glass, driving, new places, change, public humiliation, etc ...
- Scene-Specific Fears: fear of burning dinner, overwatering the garden, losing track of time, dropping great-grandma's prized vase, scratching the mayor's car at the car-wash, offending the wrong person, etc ...
... so put the MC in a scary setting, or have them run across someone or something that brings their fears to the forefront, forcing the MC to confront them.
19. Keeping Secrets
Perhaps one of your MC's deepest fears is revealing a secret about their true self, about their past, or even about something they've just done. If this is the case, set up the MC in situations where this secret *almost* comes to the surface. Maybe a comparable situation occurs again, and the MC *almost* says something ... but then doesn't. Maybe the reader doesn't even know what the secret is. All the better!
Consider these two types of secrets:
- The Lifelong Secret
Hiding their past (dreams or demons), putting up a false facade, a former shame, covering for a loved one, re-writing past history, hiding their weakness, hiding the truth for a cause?
- Small Secret
White lie, cover-up for a mistake, don't want to hurt someone with the truth?
Alternatively, maybe it's the other characters who aren't telling. And the MC (or at least the reader!) knows they're evading questions and hiding something ... if only we knew what!
Links: Shh It's Secret - Fiction University //
20. Character Flaws
Our characters aren't perfect, so make sure you're using those flaws to their maximum, conflict-starting, tension-inducing potential. Your character likely has a core 'fatal flaw' that is a central part of their internal character arc. But you don't have to restrict yourself to that.
Addictions, too much of a good thing, etc. Put a few temptations between the MC and their goal. Distraction just might mean the difference between achieving their goal and failing miserably.
- Weak skill sets
People skills, school smarts, street smarts, physical strength, endurance, steadfastness, loyalty. Your character probably isn't an ace at everything in life. Put them in situations where they're forced to use their weakest skills.
- Personality extremes
Overprotective, overbearing, overly anxious, perfectionist, workaholic, lazy, unconfident, low self-esteem, proud, insecure, etc. All these personality traits lend themselves well to conflict. What happens when the perfectionist doesn't have time to finish? When the overprotective big sister ends up effectively pushing her little brother away?
21. Uncertainty in Decision-Making
Your character is constantly making choices: about where to go, what to do, what to say (and what not to say). If these actions and choices are resulting in conflict, but the tension is falling flat, maybe it's not the action, but the MC's reaction that needs examination. I mentioned these before, but it's worth re-iterating here:
- Amp Up your MC's the Hesitance/Guilt/MC
Maybe it's time for your MC to show more signs of uncertainty. Did they make the right decision? Say the right thing? ... or didn't they? Show just how conflicted they are.
- Overly Confident Hero
Alternatively, if you make your protagonist seem completely self-assured that they've done the right thing, this will signal to readers that ... well, it's probably not true, and your MC is about to have things blow up in their face!
Both methods can be quite effective!
6 Ways to Create Riveting Conflict - Helping Writers Become Authors // How to Write Scenes - Lara Willard // Types of Tension - Writability // How to Rock Your Story's Tension - She's Novel // 7 Ways to Create Conflict in Your Novel - Janice Hardy // 5 Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes -- Darcy Pattinson // Options for Scene Conflit - K.M. Weiland // Goals, Conflict, Tension, Stakes - Fiction University // 10 Ways to Increase Your Story's Tension - Cheryl Reif // Tension vs. Conflict - Writers Helping Writers // Tension Examples - Writability // 3 Ways to Add Tension During a Revision - Fiction University // Types of Conflict - Live, Write, Breathe // Tension-Buiilding Techniques from Harry Potter - Writers Helping Writers // 5 Ways to Add Tension When Your Scene is Dragging - Writer Unboxed // Deconstructing Micro-Tension - Writer Unboxed // Whoa, That's Tense! - Fiction University //33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict // But, Therefore, And So: Keeping Conflict - NowNovel // Levels of Conflict -- Writer Unboxed // External vs. Internal Conflict - Live, Write, Breathe // Setting Up the Slow Reveal // Plotting Made Easy: Add Complications
So. It's Brainstorming Time. How will/do you inject tension into your quiet scenes?