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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Battle Within

Cliffhangers, frustration, unanswered questions, and raising the stakes -- all of these are powerful tension builders.  But this last technique may be the most powerful of all.  It's the universally human experience of inner conflict.

Give your protagonist two or more mutually exclusive goals or desires and you immediately create inner conflict.  Consider this actual situation:

At college a young man came across a girl he'd known since early childhood and started dating her.  Soon after this, he realized he was in love and wanted to marry her.  But one of his deepest secrets held him back.  When he was in high school, he had been involved in a stupid prank leading to a car accident that killed the girl's father.  He and his friends fled the scene, never revealing their role in the incident.  Now it had come back to haunt him again.

Should he reveal the truth and risk losing the woman he loved?  Or should he keep the secret, marry her, and live with the gnawing guilt?  Either way their relationship was bound to suffer.

These are the kinds of choices that generate inner conflict.  Create compelling enough turmoil and readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist resolves it.  What compromise will he have to make?  Will he regret his choice later?

Inner conflict is a technique that, by its very nature, also leads to powerful characterization.  While the tension steadily builds, your protagonist is making difficult choices that gradually define him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Long, Hard Road

Nothing tunes a reader out quicker than a main character who achieves his goals too easily.  It's like being in class with the annoying brainy kid who gets an A on every assignment and doesn't even break a sweat.  Real people have challenges.  Their lives aren't easy.  Ironically, when we read to escape our own problems, we want to immerse ourselves in the setbacks of a frustrated protagonist.

Tension Technique #4 -- frustrating your protagonist -- is all about making it as difficult as possible for your character to accomplish his goals.  Give anything to him too easily and you've thrown aside what should be one of the most often used tools from your author arsenal.

If Reggie needs to win the Battle of the Bands (goal) to get the attention of his secret crush (motive), a few obstacles thrown in his path will not only build sympathy but heighten tension as well.  Maybe Reggie's old electric guitar gets stepped on three days before the competition.  Reggie searches pawn shops and garage sales for two days; but, when he finally finds a replacement, his jealous rival, accompanied by a gang of cronies, chases him down an alley and steals the guitar.  By a miracle, Reggie manages to acquire a third guitar.  Blow an amp and break a few strings two minutes before his band goes on stage and you've really cranked up the tension.  The very things that make life more difficult for Reggie is what makes readers root for the hero and turn pages.

To introduce this technique, I sometimes give students an unsolvable crossword puzzle.  Every time they think they've found an answer, they discover it won't fit.  You don't want to let this activity drag on too long, but a few minutes of frustration and an example or two from a popular novel help get the point across.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gambling with Happiness

Every protagonist has a motive.  Without a motive, the protagonist would be perfectly happy sitting on the couch at home eating potato chips and watching TV.  A skilled novelist knows she has to do something to shake things up in the protagonist's life.  We have to upset Ms. Protagonist's balance of happiness so she crosses the "adventure threshold" to get her comfortable stability back.  Here's where Tension-Building Technique #3 comes into play.  It's what Donald Maass in his excellent Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook refers to as "raising the stakes."

Raising the stakes happens every time you introduce a situation that makes it more important for your protagonist to restore balance to her life.

Suppose Katie's brother has just been murdered, and her Type A personality won't let her rest until the killer is brought to justice.  The police have written off Bill's death as a suicide, but Katie knows Bill better than that and decides to look for his murderer on her own.  In the meantime, however, new evidence arrives, implicating Katie in the crime.

How important has it now become for Katie to solve the crime?  The stakes have now been raised.  But wait a second!  While Katie is evading the police and getting ever closer to discovering the real killer's identity, Mr. Murderer now discovers what she's up to and decides to finish her off.

What started out as an emotional tragedy has now ballooned into a life or death situation.  Mix in a lot of unanswered questions and a few chapter-ending cliffhangers, and you might just have your readers hooked.

I like to use a "rotating story" to give my students hands on practice with raising the stakes.  Each student creates a character, a motive, and a goal which she then hands off to a second student.  Student #2 looks at the character's goal and decides what would make it twice as important for the character to accomplish it.  Now the story moves off to Student #3 who must triple the importance of achieving the goal.

For an in-depth look at how to master this and other tension-building techniques, I recommend Donald Maass's book.  It's a valuable resource for any writing teacher or author and provides multiple examples of tension at work.

Speaking of motives and goals, check back next week to see how these elements can be used to heighten a story's tension.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Leave 'Em Hanging

In the early days of film-making, a popular technique for bringing audiences back to the theater was to leave a protagonist hanging on for dear life at the edge of a sheer, rocky cliff.  Will Ranger Bob survive?  Come back next week for Episode 2 in a three part series!

Cliffhangers are as interesting and useful today as they were a hundred or more years ago.  The fear of death is universal.  Leave your protagonist in mortal peril and most readers will be reluctant to put your book down.  At least not until they've read the next chapter to make sure the hero survives. (Or cheated and skipped ahead!)

Some of the most annoying (i.e. best) writers find ways to drag the cliffhanger out.  A cliffhanger can be especially effective in a novel written in multiple points of view.  Being a linear type of reader, it hooks me almost every time when an author ends one character's chapter with a life or death situation then starts the next chapter in a different character's point of view.  I'm either forced to wait twenty pages to find out if Character A survives or (Yes, I'm guilty of this!) skim through chapters until I find the continuing thread of Character A's story.  Either way I spend more time reading than I intended.

If something sounds oddly familiar about this technique, that's because a cliffhanger is nothing more than an unanswered question involving higher stakes.  Cliffhangers inspire the same kind of morbid curiosity that makes "rubber-necking" motorists slow down to gawk at an accident on the opposite side of the freeway.  Even though we assume an author wouldn't kill off the main character in the middle of the story, there's still a part of us that needs to know everything will turn out all right.

So leave that gladiator in the bloodied sand with a sword pointing at his neck while you send your reader on a detour to the senator's opulent villa at the outskirts of Rome.  Maybe Ms. Reader will get annoyed and skip ahead, but she's still eagerly reading your story, and that's what you're shooting for.

Will we make it through the next three techniques?  Will it be worth the wait?  Tune in next week for Episode 3: Raising the Stakes.