Most Common Writing Mistakes: How You May Be Killing Your Story’s Tension

How can you keep your story moving forward in scenes that don’t offer full-blown conflict? No doubt you’ve heard the aphorism, “No conflict, no story.” But your characters can’t be clawing each other’s eyes out in every scene. So how do you keep readers hooked until you can pull out the big guns?

The answer is tension.

Tension is the threat of conflict. It’s conflict’s calmer—but no less potent—cousin. For a story to properly work, tension must be present in every scene.

This, however, can be easier said than done. Sometimes we can zap a story’s tension without even realizing it.

This can happen as the result of a couple of factors:

1. A threat too easily resolved.

2. A threat too far distanced.

3. An undefined character goal.

If your story is suffering from any of these ailments, your tension is going to flatline. Why should readers fear the boogeyman that might be around the corner if they know that

a) the protagonist is going to easily defeat him,

b) the protagonist has run too far and too fast for the boogeyman to ever catch up, or

c) the protagonist has no goal that will be endangered should the boogeyman happen to catch up after all?

Story Tension, Pfft!

Let’s take a look at an example of what can happen to your story if you’ve let the tension drain out and puddle around the protagonist’s feet:

Margie looked from the hunting knife in her hands to the hairy boogeyman she had just easily slain. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, yelping, around the corner of the barn, probably distracted by her clever cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen didn’t return to the scene of the attack for twenty-four hours. That gave her plenty of time to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb into the jet-powered racer. They could clean the house, pick up groceries, maybe even finish the dress Auntie was sewing for her. Come morning, they’d head out. Even if the boogeymen did return sooner than expected, Margie could just kill them like she had this one.

Want a yawn burger and a side of snores to go with that story? Margie obviously has everything under control, so what’s to keep readers from turning on the TV and looking for a character whose straits are a little more dire?

Story Tension Galore!

Let’s try again. We’ll raise the stakes, beef up the threat, shorten the timeline, and give Margie an important goal.

Margie looked from the hunting knife in her trembling hands to the hairy boogeyman she had somehow managed to slay. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, roaring, around the corner of the barn, probably to devour her beloved cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen never left the scene of attack until all living mammals were dead. They’d be back within seconds. She ran for the house. She had to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb out of here. She could only pray they would be able to get the old jalopy started. Their only chance was to strike out across the desert. Without food or water, they would be lucky to make it as far as Gaptooth Well, but if someone didn’t warn the settlements, every person in the territory could fall prey to the boogeys.

Isn’t that a little better? Nothing actually happens in this scene. There’s no conflict. No arguing. No fighting. No clawing out of eyes. But there’s plenty of tension, since readers know the
threat is both real and imminent. Some super-duper, nail-biting, gooseflesh-raising conflict is just around the corner, and the ratcheted tension in this scene will ensure readers turn the page to face it head on—just like Margie.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the biggest tension killer in stories?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve had it happen in the opposite way, too. I’ve read books where main characters got killed off all the time, and I ended up feeling distanced from them and expecting them to die all the time. I think in writing you have to strike a good balance.

  2. Definitely. If we “numb” readers, so to speak, with too much horror, that kills the tension just as surely as if everything is always sunshine and morning glories.

  3. Kill the waffle.

  4. Waffle?

  5. Tension killers; too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs.

  6. Description is a huge one. We can get so much more bang for our buck by letting the context speak for itself, with the help of well-chosen details, wherever possible.

  7. I find this sentence very funny: “But your characters can’t be clawing each other’s eyes out in every scene” Snickers.

    “1. A threat too easily resolved.”

    Yep. I didn’t realize this until 20 chapters later that I could have created more tension, by not killing off the first major antagonist, Kar. Now I have to go back and fix it. An antagonist thats also a pov, who can make a horse and cart turn flat, and fold it up into a neat little package dissevers better.

    So much revising/editing it stinks when you realize your wip is still a pile of donkey dung, and needs much more work. xP -Face plant into keyboard-

    That brings up a thought, I think after a draft is done it’d be a good idea to go and take hard look at the characters in it and see if they deserve better, less, or a delete. I’d say that antagonist do not get enough love, with out them is there much of a story?

    Ok I went off topic there a bit sorry. Ooh, tension! Tension is a tease, it’s like something is going to happen, but doesn’t quiet yet and the characters nerves get frayed …. and hopefully the readers too. Right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Antagonists deserve more love. They’re inherent to the conflict. Sounds like your Kar has a lot of potential!

  8. Excessive detail really, really hurts a story by modern standards. I purchased “The Once and Future King” some months ago, and I find it almost painful to read.

    I respect T. H. White, and I hope I can fully read his magnum opus one day… but the way he describes in excruciating detail how people worked with hay, castle architecture, and even every item in the place where they keep falcons, in the very first chapters, has given me a snorefest.

    The main plot taking too long to kick off is another reader repellent. In Graceling, I’m not sure if the main plot was about fighting the evil uncle king that had turned the main character into his assassin and enforcer, or dealing with the other king whose power was to be able to charm anyone.

    And of course, the infamous Show-Don’t-Tell, also from Graceling. For around the first third or half of the book, we read about how the main character has been trained to be the best warrior ever… yet she rarely shows it. Save for a few guards she easily drugs and a character she quickly knocks out in the first chapter, a small time ruler she easily intimidates later on, a bit of wrestling with the character she KO’ed in the first chapter, up until the part I read, she isn’t in any real combat situation that proves she’s indeed the big badass she’s been claimed to be. Heck, even when her evil uncle king calls her to intimidate her himself, she brags about how she could easily fight every guard in the throne room and then kill him with a thrown dagger taken from a guard… and then she leaves. All talk, no action.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t read Once and Future King yet (although that has to be one of the best titles ever!). Graceling was definitely uneven in its plotting and theme.

  9. I love how your example demonstrates that foreshadowing often creates tension—in this instance, by showing what will/could happen to the characters after this particular scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Foreshadowing is a tremendously powerful tool. It can accomplish all kinds of nifty little tricks like this! We definitely can’t afford to overlook it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland (best selling author of Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel) explains that the old saying, “No Conflict, No Story,” is often undermined by writers in three ways: […]

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