A couple of days I wrote an article on Creating Tension in a story: https://tagrey.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/creating-tension-in-a-story/
I created a very short numbered list on things you can do to create Tension (yes, I’m using a Captial T). Now I wish to extend that list with more things you can do to create Tension. If you have not already read the previous article, I highly suggest that you do (it’s good really). I talk about Dexter and the LoTR. What’s not great about that? On to creating tension!
On our previous list we had:
- Everything that can go wrong, should.
- Every scene should feature: a char’s PoV, that char’s goal, and an antagonist.
Okay maybe number doesn’t exactly create tension, but if you read the example below it on my previous article, then you’d know that the antagonist in each scene creates tension with the PoV character.
3. Show the character doing the opposite of what they’d normally do.
Not only does this make things interesting, but it creates tension for the reader. This can be as simple as making the reader frustrated or sympathetic towards the character. How does sympathy create tension? Oh, it does! Think Boromir in LoTR (the movie) when he fights the orcs, sacrificing himself, to save the hobbits. This is a huge, powerful scene and it was unexpected from the audience’s point of view. A character whom we could all just see as easily stealing the ring for himself, paid the ultimate sacrifice–thus sympathy. So tension can come in different forms. Think about the tension in that scene, compared to the tension of Michael Meyers cutting his way into the closet where Jamie Lee Curtis is crying inside. Both have a lot of tension!
- Jamie Lee Curtis fights off Michael Myers
How do you show your character doing the opposite of what they normally do? Make a list of their key personality traits. I’m going to make a list up for the pretend character Joe I made up in the previous article.
-Joe is very shy, procrastinator, reacts great under stress, good citizen, passive-
Now, let’s say I was writing a short story based off Joe’s scenario from last time. He needs to get aspirin to his father who’s having a heart attack. The only place he can get it from is the only gas station open late at night. He can’t find the aspirin. There are a lot of people in line. He can’t pay without cash, which he doesn’t have. The ATM is down, so he steals the aspirin and the cashier calls the cops. Now he’s being chased by a cop on the way home to save his dad. There’s our scenario and each little scene has tension in it.
We know that Joe is shy, a procrastinator, reacts great under stress, a good citizen, and passive in personality. However, let’s see Joe doing the opposite of what how he usually does.
- Shy = now he must speak to the people in line ahead of him and try to talk them into letting him go first. Because he’s normally so shy, he comes off as a little crazy sounding in his panic. He’s awkward and weird. (this creates tension because he can’t get what he wants)
- Procrastinator = normally a slow-goer, Joe has to rush around town to find a place open at night because of the emergency. (this creates tension because the audience knows Joe is a slow-goer and now is forced to rush, and later we see he doesn’t do so well in the gas station at being rushed)
- Reacts well to stress = Show Joe not reacting well. So we see him panicking in the store, flying through the aisles knowing every seconds that ticks by, ticks away his father’s life. Instead of reacting well to the people not letting him butt ahead in line, he gets mad and angry and yells at them.
- Good citizen = Joe is a good guy. He’s simple, too. But without cash and the gas station not taking credit, he’s now forced to do something he’d never do–steal. Now he’s a moral/ethical dilemma but decides he must do what is necessary and runs out of the store with the stolen aspirin. He’d also normally never speed. However now he guns the engine for home, disobeying every speed sign and stop sign.
- Passive = At this point we’ve basically already shown him being everything but passive, which is good. So let’s show passive Joe, being aggressive towards those in line, while driving, and maybe even to the cop now trying to pull him over.
Taking a character with their normal personality traits and switching them makes things so much more interesting! Don’t we all want to see what one thing softens the bad guy? (puppies is my bet). If you’re writing a story, think about all of your primary and secondary characters and make a list of their primary traits. Here is an example of the heroine from my newest novel:
- Always in control
- Bad tempered
- Poor sense of humor
Now it’s my job in this book to establish that she is indeed all of the 5 pretty negative things. Then when I show her:
- Losing control
- Being sweet
- Being dominated
- Making a joke
the reader will find it engrossing, unexpected (maybe even shocking and fun), and most of all it creates some tension. Maybe the heroine does not want to be sweet, but maybe she is forced to be so. Now she is frustrated and the reader gets to watch with a grin on his/her face at her discomfort. We are all a little bit evil inside.
That’s enough of that. Pop on over to Facebook and friend me, because I like friends and don’t forget I have a contest going on right now! Win a free book
T. A. Grey