raising the tension without ruining your story: a primer

Okay, I know what this is like. You’ve got a great character. You’ve got a stellar story concept, and your conflict is tight. You know everything is going to work out eventually, and the good guys are going to win.

But you want to raise the stakes a little bit.

You want your character to get in a bit of a pickle, perhaps have a setback or two on their way to ultimate victory–and you want the tension to skyrocket. I get it. These are all good intentions. And, if you play your cards right, they’re the key to happy readers and a well-received story. No one wants to watch Frodo trot into Mordor and drop the ring in a volcano with a smile on his face, right? We want to see him suffer.

But, look. If your characters are going to suffer (and they should), you can’t throw them into the biggest crisis to befall humankind and expect them to work their way out of it with a socket wrench and a hamburger. 

Too often, what I end up seeing are these fantastic mishaps that are really too big for life. Your characters get thrown in the back of a squad car or they end up as a prisoner or someone gets kidnapped. Maybe the special key gets dropped down a well or the giant pack moose runs off with the rations. (“Crap! Not again!”)

If your character has some magic abilities, maybe these things aren’t such a setback. Your main character is a wizard? He can fry the locks in the squad car and bust out in style. Your main character is psychically linked to their group members? Getting kidnapped is maybe not so big of a deal. Harry Potter can wave his magic wand and the key could come zooming back into his hand. For the right character, these are all reasonable complications.

But, if you have a main character that’s a fourteen-year-old girl who’s more interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder than technology, she’s not going to be able to reprogram the shuttle launch computers in time to save her magic kitten from being blasted to the moon. Unless she’s a computer genius…but that attribute would have to be apparent in her from the get go–she can’t discover her latent ability to speak binary and wear a bonnet at the same time while under duress.

All too often, an author that is hoping to raise the stakes in a major way causes a chain reaction of plot decisions that are either:

  • unbelievable (“She had a flash of insight–they had to have taken her charge to Guatemala. Somehow, she just knew.”)
  • unreasonable (“The pack moose had been gone for two weeks, and we were so weak with hunger we couldn’t walk. Suddenly, we heard a lowing off to the right. Moosey! He had come back to us!”)
  • or impossible (“I know! I’ll climb this twelve story building with my shoelaces, skateboard down the fire escapes, break the window with my bare hands, and then pull my girlfriend out of the hotel room before the bomb detonates. Radical!”)

In many cases, the resulting events are some combination of the three. The thing is–you can get as crazy as you want coming up with complications, but the complications you create have to be resolvable by your characters as they currently are. Otherwise you get into situations that are clearly manufactured to create tension, which negates their effectiveness and creates a situation where the reader is less engaged than they were before.

And, this is unfortunate, but true: if you truly want to raise the stakes, you are going to have to hurt your characters. When things get complicated, the reader has to know that something could actually go wrong. Otherwise, the reader’s not going to care when kitty gets placed in the rocket launch because they already know that you’re going to fix everything.

That’s not to say, though, that every time something happens your main character needs to sustain an injury. But, sometimes, things do need to actually go wrong. Just because you have the power to right everything that plagues your characters doesn’t mean you should.

What it boils down to is this: you have to get your character into scrapes that they can justifiably get out of...and, sometimes, your characters have to fail. Failure is useful because it raises the stakes for a rematch, which, if you’ll notice, equals tension! If you overlook one or both of these truths, you’re sterilizing your story. If there’s no sense that actual danger can befall your character, what’s the point?

My friends, while the options in fiction are limitless, logic and consistency are not. If you find yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole to solve a problem (or are reduced to happy circumstance), check out your conflict-raising plot point. Don’t rely on a string of logical inconsistencies to navigate out of a scrape. Give your readers some credit and give them something that they can actually believe.

What kinds of plot devices have you used to raise tension? Have they been successful? Have you written yourself into a corner trying to raise the stakes? How did you fix it?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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