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Hey, y’all. I’m starting a new blog theme about writing, editing, and publishing based on my role as editor for Transmundane Press, my experiencing teaching, and various other writerly ethos reasons. Let me know if you like them. I’ll know to keep writing them.
Writing Tip: Amp It Up. My personal take on conflict.
Conflict and tension are the fundamentals of fiction. Essentially, this is where the story begins. Traditional tensions are created through internal and/or external forces, usually characterized as man vs. man, man vs. nature or technology, man vs. society, man vs. God, man vs. self.
Here is another checklist:
- Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
- Empowerment. Give both sides options.
- Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
- Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
- Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
- Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
- Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
- Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
- High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction. (Source)
With this background in mind, tension should be present on the first page, hopefully within the first few words of a story, even when background information is needed (some might disagree with me here, but this is my personal preference as a reader, editor, and writer).
So let me lay out a few of my nitty gritty suggestions.
One: Every scene should have a clear and important purpose. Don’t show anything that doesn’t advance/complicate the plot or create tension. Don’t have stuff happen just to get to the next interesting part. Make it all interesting.
What does that mean? Well, more importantly, what doesn’t that mean? Don’t mistake slow action for a lack of tension. External and internal tensions should strike some balance. If you’re beating your characters hard, give them a moment to breathe, reflect, plan, and show how and why what’s happened to them before affects them and will affect them in the coming scenes.
This is a cool article that explains this idea a bit more.
Two: Into the Pot, Already Boiling, as coined by Jesse Lee Kercheval. This is a classic story opener that I learned about during my years as a graduate student. It’s one of three but always my go-to.
Why? Because you want to intrigue your readers right out of the gate. Doing so all but guarantees that your readers will hold on through the boring stuff…see note one…the slower stuff, the stuff that you need to properly set up the world. Just don’t keep them there for too long.
This also helps you avoid those clunky prologues and info-dumps. A lot can be shown to a reader through the narrator’s lens. What do they show the reader? How? Why? This develops character, scene, and background information without cutting the tension. Besides, a well-honed tone due to a character’s voice can do much more than this.
Three: Make promises and keep them. This is another classic bit of advice often referred to as Chekhov’s Gun. So deliver on your promises, but you know, just wait a while before you do.
Because…BAM…tension. That’s what waiting for something inevitable does. It creates anxiety. Think about it.
What happens the night before a big change in your life (starting a new job, going to an interview, attending a concert, etc)? You can hardly sleep because you’re waiting for the event to come. (This happens to me every semester of college, waiting for the first day. Imagining the ways I’ll inappropriately set the mood for my classroom. This semester, I mistook a student saying poor for whore. Fiasco.)
So don’t only make good on your promises. Make them wait for it, too.
Those are my suggestions. What are yours?