Margie Lawson

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Yearning for Tension: 5 days, 5 ways to unlock your story’s conflict

Raise your hand if you’ve heard tension on every page. If you know you must have conflict and obstacles.

Dollars-to-donuts, every hand is waving as high and hard as the girl in the back of the room who knows the answer and never gets picked.

But, with little risk of winding up in a donut-induced coma, I’m betting if you scanned your current WIP (Work in Progress), you would find more than one chapter, one scene, one page with no tension. Agents, editors, readers may have even said, “I just don’t care enough about your character.”

Typically, this comment comes from not having enough tension and conflict in your story. And while it isn’t that we don’t know we need conflict, obstacles, and tension, but rather, we don’t believe it is possible.

And that is fair. We live in a world where we avoid conflict. We go out of our way to reduce tension. We don’t want to face confrontation, upset, disappointment. But quiet characters, get-information scenes, and predictable plots won’t engage your readers and sell your stories.  

Tension isn’t only possible. Tension is imperative.

But what is the difference between tension and conflict? What are obstacles? How do they all come together?

Likely, you drafted a story with clear goals and a strong motivation. You’ve filled pages with murders, thefts, lost hope, arguments, sword fights, gun battles, chase scenes. These can be obstacles—actions in direct opposition to the character’s goal—but what if readers still say, “Your story is too quiet.”

How can that happen?

While murders, arguments, and gunfights are great obstacles making for strong conflict, it doesn’t mean your story oozes tension. And without tension, you don’t have a great read.

What makes a great read?

Readers.

It seems impossible since you can’t know who will pick up your book, who will love your story, who will tell their friends about this must-read. And yet, readers are the very ones responsible for bringing tension to your story.

Why?

Because readers bring the worry, and without the reader's worry, there is no tension.

How do we make our readers worry?

You make your readers care.

Think about it. When we watch horrible news stories, we feel bad, sad, hurt, or even scared, but then turn off the TV. We go for dinner. We let Calgon take away our worries. 

Example: A young man desperate for a new job.

If it is a random person, we don’t necessarily feel connected. We aren’t emotionally involved, so we don’t worry.

But if it is your son?

A boy you watched struggle in school, get in trouble, fight to be seen or heard. But now, as an adult, he has an opportunity for a six-figure job—his idea of success.

I guarantee you won’t sleep until he sends the I-got-the-job text.

We worry because we care. We care because we know him. We understand the more-money goal isn’t his story. We know this success represents his true yearning, proving himself worthy to his doubters.

 The key to story tension is knowing your character/s. However, we’re often so eager to dive into writing we often miss this step and, as a result, miss the opportunity make your story pop with tension.

So, take five days and explore five ways of discovering your character’s yearning and upping your story’s tension.

Try it:

Day 1: Pre-story Timeline

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Take a break from your computer and roll out a big piece of butcher paper or grab a big poster board and draw a line lengthways across the middle.  

Timeline out your character's power-point moments.

Date your line from birth to the story's start using five-year increments—no need to hold fast to five years. If a power-point memory is at four years and two months, that’s okay.

Include things like:  

  • The circumstance of birth-Unwed mother, much-wanted child, whatever
  • The first memory—usually after age two
  • Those dark moments when your character was at her lowest.
  • The exciting moments when all seemed right with the world, a new puppy.
  • A preteen moment
  • A teen moment
  • A college girl moment.
  • High emotional impact moments shape the character.
  • Include the kind of things you remember.
    • Sitting alone, getting in trouble
    • The time you broke your arm, your first kiss, first sex, first heartbreak
    • The huge fight, the car crash, the disappointments
    • Play with her life before your story starts.

Day 2: Free write a scene

2

Take one of your pre-timeline moments and free write a scene in first-person POV.

First-person freewriting allows you to go deeper into thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions, actions of a character.

Don’t worry about perfect writing. It doesn’t matter if you tell-not-show or if you have paragraphs of narrative or description.  The goal is to connect with your character emotionally so you can empower the character you will put on the page.

Have fun, write more than one scene, enjoy living in your character's skin and discovering what has shaped her.

Day 3: Look back

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Look back at all you have created in the last two days.

Ask yourself:

  • What new things have I learned?
  • What emotions does your character feel, and how does she show this?
  • Why does my character get emotional about these things? Potential triggers
  • How do these events impact the character that steps on the page at the start of your story?
  • Start picking at your character’s true yearning?

Day 4: Armchair psychologists

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Now that you know your character’s life invite her over.

  • Watch how she comes into the room; body language reveals much about character and emotion.
    • Does she curl in the chair? Does she look at you?
  • Start small. Ask:
    • Why did she come to visit?
    • Who are you? What’s your life like? What are your dreams? Worries? Why do you want to tell this story? What is your story?  
    • Don’t let her off easy. If she claims up, keep pushing. If she doesn’t have an answer, find out why.
    • Allow her answers to spawn new questions.
    • Keep it up for at least three pages.

Look back: What have you learned about your character’s life, emotions, her worldview that you didn’t know. Circle or rewrite the information.

Day five: Character’s yearning

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Your character might not know the truth of her yearning—the boy who wants a six-figure job doesn’t know he wants family validation—but knowing this will not only empower every aspect of your character but also make your readers care too.

What is:

  • Your character’s external goal?
  • What motivates that goal? Motivation typically hints at her internal goal
  • What is her internal goal?
  • Even deeper, what is the truth of her yearning?

Why this works

Once you know your character and the whys behind her goal—the yearning—you no longer live in the realm of writer’s goal but give the story over to the character. With her taking charge, she won’t stand for those quiet get-info-scenes but rather work for her goals. When she meets those well-crafted obstacles, they mean more to her, the story, and the worrying reader.

Extra Extra: Still having trouble with quiet scenes or the-get-information scenes?

Take some time to do the above for your secondary scene character. She can’t add conflict, tension, obstacles if you don’t know why she would withhold information, stand in the POV’s way, and cause havoc.

So, give yourself five days and dive into five ways and unlock your story’s conflict. And if you have a chance, share what your character yearns for in the comments. I’d love to hear.

Mucho love,
Rhay

Teacher

Rhay Christou

Rhay Christou loves her dogs—Fredo and MoJoe—her teaching and writing. Making her home in a small village in Cyprus, when she is not wandering the National Park's trails, she uses her MFA in writing from Vermont College to share her knowledge and experience to cheerlead writers in creating their best stories. Since graduating, she has taught everything from creative writing to academic writing at the university level and writing workshops on the lovely island of Cyprus, in Greece and the USA.

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