Building Up Your Story – Tension is Everything Pt. 1

tension_fullI have read enough books on the craft of writing to know that building tension is everything to a story. The reader has to feel it growing so it pushes them farther into the story and makes his or her desire to know what is going to happen so unbearable that it is a race towards the end. When I started writing The Beholder, I definitely had a few ideas on what “bricks” I was going to use to build up the tension in order to make the climax the highest point it could be. Think of your plot as a huge mountain and the more tension you stack onto it the higher your climax point. The higher the reader has to climb to get to the climax, the more exciting the view will be from the top when they reach it.

After reaching the 20,000 mark (click here to relive my virtual happy dance about that milestone), this is a good time to reflect back on what those tension building blocks are going to be. There should be new ones to add, old ones to revise, and even ones to maybe throw out, depending on how your story has changed in this initial phase. I also think the 20,000 mark is a good place to do this because, at least for me, this is where I have already done some major writing at the front and back of my story, but the middle is kind of hanging them all murky and evasive-like. I need to know more about what I am building up to in order to connect my super hooky beginning with my star-studded ending. Without realizing it, I created a “building up” exercise that I think will come in handy for any future novel I write. Here is what you do:

  1. Reach 20,000 words
  2. Reflect on those 20,000 words including all the motivations of each character and how they will change from start to finish.
  3. Now make a list of “Building up to ….” tension points
  4. Make a list of “Character 1 changes by ….”

Because those are the main goals of a novel – to build the tension successfully and show how the characters have changed from start to finish. Of course there is the theme and setting and dialogue and tone and all that fun stuff but these two things – tension and change – are the building blocks, so we don’t want to write the whole story without giving some real thought to them.

SPOILER ALERT…if you ever plan on reading my novel and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise, here is the list that I came up with to give an example of what I plan to build up as the story progresses from start to finish. You will notice that not all of these are tension driven (like Candace interacting with her brother more) but that is okay for the list. Most of them are tension driven; the others are just there to help build up other aspects of the story like characters bonding and changing. I just started every line with Building up and then went through the characters in my mind as to what they should be going through and what needs to be continually mounting in the story to get the message across that I want.

Building up the nightmares Candace has
Building up Cecilia’s presence
Building up Candace’s expectations that her mother will return
Building up Kay’s dislike for Roland
Building up Kay’s interest in Ink
Building up Candace’s father’s inability to act on what he wants
Building up Ink’s presence
Building up Candace’s interaction with her younger brother Max
Building up Max’s intuition
Building up pressure from the Detective (with clues from Cecilia to point him to Candace)
Building up Roland’s deterioration
Building up Candace’s obsession with immortality
Building up Cecilia to be a novelist or poet instead of a journalist
Building up Detective Gesner’s need to prove he is a good detective

Building up really just means sprinkling it throughout the story in measured doses until the desired conclusion is drawn. You don’t want to just bring a dump truck full of “build up” and pour it on your reader; they will get buried and lose interest. It is a slow build up – one shovel at a time. This helps to build what the remaining scenes need to convey.

For example, I haven’t written really any scenes with Candace’s father in it but it is important to me (at least at this phase) to show that he is a man of inaction and that infuriates Candace because she thinks he should have fought or done something to keep her mother with them. With that in mind, I have to come up with a few examples to show this quality of him to sprinkle throughout the book so when she finally blows up at him for this reason and then storms off in an attempt to do something extremely stupid, it makes sense to the reader why it happened.

The same goes for character motivations and how they change from start to finish. You have to establish why a character acts the way they do so that the actions they take, no matter how crazy they may seem, make sense. And the way they think or act or feel should change from beginning to end to show how they have grown. If they don’t change then what was the whole point of the story? (Unless your point is to show how no matter what, people don’t change.)

One simple example in mine is Max Callihan. He is Candace’s twelve year old brother who is only concerned with his hobbies and doing his own thing. As the story progresses, he starts to reach that age where children become more aware of adult issues and matures in his way of thinking and acting; he begins to care about things other than just himself. I go through each character like this to see how I expect them to change. They may all not change but many should, even if in a small way.

Any other tips or tricks out there to build up your tension or show how your characters evolve? I feel these two things will be in constant flux throughout the whole writing process but I felt that the 20,000 word mark was a good checkpoint to go over and review what I had so far.

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One thought on “Building Up Your Story – Tension is Everything Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Building Up Your Story – Tension is Everything Pt. 2 « J.A. Ward Writes

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