Narrative Tension for Beginners

Narrative tension. You can’t create a page-turner without it. If there is no tension, the story won’t be very intriguing. How many of us have always dreamed of reading a book about a man who just sits on a bench the entire story? My point exactly. We want to read something that will pull us in. Give us the story of a man on a bench waiting for his blind date when some aliens suddenly land on Earth. That definitely makes things more interesting. Adding tension to your story can be tricky when you’re first starting out as a writer because it’s all about finding balance. You don’t want to overload your story and make it so convoluted with tension that you confuse your readers, but at the same time you don’t want it so thinned out that your story reads more like a to-do list with different characters than an actual plotted out idea. 

So, how do you find that balance? Simple. I’ve come up with some tips for first time writers looking to build tension in their stories. It’s important to keep in mind that tension is something your story should have, no matter if it’s 2,000 words or 200,000 words. 

Keep Raising the Stakes:

Okay, so you’ve got an initial conflict that sets your story in motion, but then you need to layer on top of it the smaller complications that arise from that end goal. Let’s dissect a classic plot for a moment. Lord of the Rings. We have the overarching goal that sets the story in motion, Frodo has the ring of power and he has to get it out of the Shire. But he’s only supposed to get it as far as Rivendell, however, the council votes to take it to Mordor and throw it into the fire and Frodo volunteers. Boom! The stakes just got raised for Frodo. Then the mines of Moria happen and Gandalf is lost. Stakes are raised again for the whole fellowship. Then the group splits up when the Uruk-hai attack. Stakes raised even further. Merry and Pippin are taken hostage causing Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli to go rescue them. More raised stakes – and that’s all just the first book!

But you can see where I’m going with this. One main conflict can have a ripple effect of other conflicts that arise, and your characters have to react to them. Each new minor conflict is you leveling up the tension for your characters, and making your readers want to keep reading because they don’t know how the character(s) will react. Your plot doesn’t even need to have a dragon and five armies to make it tense, every day contemporary stories can be just as intense. It all boils down to your main character wanting something, going after it, and setting in motion a bunch of minor hiccups that arise along the way, making it a constant choice between A or B. Love triangles are a very popular example of this. And a character’s desire doesn’t always have to be this grandiose desire to bring justice and equality to the world and tear down the corrupt system in order for your plot to have a purpose and drive conflict forward. Let us not forget that Shaun of the Dead’s events all started because someone wanted a Cornetto. 

Balance Tension with Moments of Calm:

I know I said you need to keep raising the stakes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character(s) a bit of break every once in a while. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to give your readers a chance to digest what’s happening in between obstacles. If you have too many problems arising for your characters all at once, it becomes too much. Plus, these moments of “rest” are where you can build the stories in other ways like characterization or revealing bits of backstory. For example, if you have two bank robbers trying to make it down from Montana to the Mexican border, you can slow it down a bit by maybe giving them a flat tire on a remote stretch of highway somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona. You’d still have the tension of a flat tire when they’re so close to achieving their goal, but there is still a chance to have some calm moments. While the two bank robbers are waiting for Triple A to arrive, they can have an in-depth conversation. One can reveal that he’s trying to pay off a loan shark, while the other can admit he’s never changed a flat tire before. Either way, that slow moment on the highway can be a chance to work on backstory and characterization. 

Don’t think that a story’s action needs to be all rise all the time in order to create tension. You can get the same effect from a few falls. Tension works best when you have a rise and a fall. Another great idea for tension is these false senses of security. When your character thinks they’ve accomplished their task and they’re home free, that is a fine time to reveal that there’s still a little ways to go. Again, drawing back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell. Everything seems chill. Those scenes are very calm for Frodo who thinks he’s soon going home. But then the council happens. The “oh my goodness” moment when Frodo offers to carry the ring to Mordor wouldn’t be so powerful if you didn’t have those calming moments before. While Frodo is in his false sense of security you’re able to digest all that he just went through to get to Rivendell. You feel for him. Which brings me to my next point…

Make Your Reader Emotional:

You can create the most intense plot with the perfect rise and fall pacing, but it won’t mean anything if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in what your character is experiencing. I will admit that a good portion of making your reader like your character, is to create a likeable character (I wrote a blog post on that if you want to read it). But another way to get your readers to like your character is using the plot. Even if your main plot of your book is something big like dismantling the ruling system, it’s a good idea to start small in terms of your character’s desire.

One example of this The Hunger Games. Across the three novels Katniss ends up creating a revolution and bringing down the corrupt government. She’s hailed as a hero. But that wasn’t her initial goal. Her initial goal was quite simple and quite relatable: She wanted to protect her sister. Even if we don’t have siblings, we all have at least one person we’d be willing to volunteer for if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. Therefore, as readers we are more willing to emotionally invest in a character that wants to protect her loved one from death, rather than a character who right off the bat is ready to take down the government. While something small, like a character wanting to return a library book before the library closes or getting a the last bag of jelly donuts for their sick family member can be what is needed to set a bigger plot in motion, it can also serve to make a character relatable to the reader. We’ve all needed to get somewhere before it closes just like we’ve all rushed to the end of the aisle to pick up the last something because it’s for someone we care about, and it’s these small, universal actions that readers relate to that help them become emotionally invested in your character’s conflict. 

Bring the Tension from Various Points:

When we think of tension between characters we tend to think of heroes and villains. And yes, the tension between your hero and your villain is important. But that doesn’t mean that we can overlook the side characters. Some of these side characters can actually help to create tension for your main characters. In fact, some side characters can be integral to subplots that create tension in the story. Never under-estimate the power of secondary conflict. For example, Batman. You have the main conflict of a superhero trying to clean up Gotham’s streets, but at the same, you also have the tension from his personal life as Bruce Wayne to factor in as well. Of course, while you want to bring in tension from all angles, you also don’t want to overcomplicate your plot either. It’s a fine balance.

Creating Worlds of Wonder (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts (One and Two) regarding world-building, we discussed the rules on maintaining consistency and the tools you’ll use to craft your world in order to keep it all straight. But what if you’re in the middle of your series, and then suddenly you’re hit with an awesome inspiration, but it requires a fundamental change?

Here, we discuss what to do when you need to make a change that essentially violates the rule of consistency in your world-building.

Evaluate the damage if you just make a change and not expect the reader to notice. For example, if you have some far-off country named Ko-Astera, you’ve never used it in your series other than make a couple of references to it, will your readers notice if you introduce a character who is from Astera, not Ko-Astera? It depends, if you’ve been providing the reader a glossary and it specifically names the nation and inhabitants as Ko-Astera, you’ll need to come up with a justification. You can write the minor change as part of a dialogue:

“Hey, I thought you were called Ko-Asterans?”

“You thought wrong, fool. We changed and dropped the name of Ko the Usurper back to its proper name. We are Asterans. Get it right before I take my blade and butcher you like I’ve done my cows at home.”

“Excuse me, wolf-biter. It was just a dancing question. No need to get bloody Six Flames bent over it.”

Then, in this book, you’ll have a revision and a note about Ko-Astera now changed to Astera.

You’re literally changing the look/feel of a particular species. This one is a bit harder to do. Say for example you have a race of demon-touched humans who you never really took the time to describe other than they are humans with demonic tendencies, but you saw a super-awesome picture of a succubus with demon horns, furry goat legs, the whole nine yards. You want your demon-touched people to have this look and feel. Congratulations, make it part of the plot. Bad Stuff is happening and guess what—it’s changing the demon-touched more like into actual demons. When the book is concluded, the process is not reversible.

You need to add a new magical ability/spell/power. Just add it, and make it seem like it was part of the plot/story arc all along.

You need to “break” a rule in your world because you realize it will be totally awesome. You’ll need to work this into your story as part of the dialogue or an event. For example, you have a water mage and you want them to cast fire spells. You need to work out a method or something in the plot so it makes sense you have broken this rule. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, it was long established men could not channel (use magic) without going insane, so the theme of one of the books was to overcome just this problem.

In conclusion, when you discover you can writing something really cool and awesome, but it will violate the rules regarding consistency, a bit of creativity and stepping back to alter the direction of the story can be yours.

Happy writing!

Why Beta-Readers and Critical Feedback Matters

You finally finished your first draft of that novel! It took you months, maybe years, but you did it! Congratulations, bucko. Treat yourself to a double-shot peppermint mocha with whip cream and chocolate sprinkles.

While your sipping on your eight dollar drink, you crack open your laptop, run your novel through a spellchecker, send it off to an editor, get it back, and then upload your work on Amazon.

You generated interest for your book through your newly minted mailing list, conducted a well-marketed launch party, sent out dozens of ARCs to reviewers, and overall felt a great sense of pride. You buy yourself another mocha.

Until the reviews start coming in…

“This plot made no sense. 1/5 stars.”

“I would give this 0 stars, but Amazon won’t let me. I even begged customer service.”

“Seriously? Reading should be considered an Olympic sport because I just broke world records after reading this crap.”

“I need bleach for my eyes.”

You had planned a whole series with at least six books. You don’t buy yourself a third mocha, but a bottle of whiskey this time and you don’t drink.

One of the activities I like to do when I hear about an “up-and-coming” hot author is read the well-written negative reviews first. Why? Because they point out all the serious problems the book had, but it offended the reader so much they had to give the work 1 or 2 stars. The comment, “I would give this 0 stars, but Amazon won’t let me” is so commonly written, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a meme somewhere.

So, let me ask you? Would you have like to have gotten those negative reviews in the form of feedback instead of actual reviews?

Enter the alpha and beta readers.

There are several types of critiques you’ll need to perform on your work before it’s ready for publication or submission.

The first is self-edit. If you hate the editing process, you need to either endure it or learn to love it. After you finish your work, set it aside. Dragon Soul Press has blogged in the past to set aside your work about two weeks for a full novel. This will give your brain a break from your work, purge your thought processes about your book and then when you go back to it, you have a fresh mindset. You will find a ton of errors. As you read your own work, you realize you may have missed certain elements and issues. Get those fixed.

Another option is to utilize an alpha-reader, but these people are completely optional. Some authors use them quite religiously. I don’t. An alpha-reader is there to critique your work as you write it. You finish Chapter 4, you run it through spell-check and then shoot it off to them. But your overall work is not finished. The alpha-reader helps you with grammar and then checks for things like pacing, characterization, tension, etc. Create a questionnaire for your alphas or allow them to comment directly on your WIP. Then you can go through and address the comments one-by-one to tighten up the story as it comes to light.

After the alpha-reader is the beta-reader. You should always have these people ready in the wings to review your work. After you’ve completed your first draft, ran it through the spellchecker and/or Grammarly, these readers will evaluate your overall story for plot, tension, pacing, POV, characterization, climax, hook, etc. The primary goal of both the alpha and beta-reader is to point out problems. It’s okay to get praise, but if someone reads a full-length novel from you and they found no problems, they didn’t do their job. You’re not that good. I’m not good. Stephen King is not that good! If you write a full-length novel, you should have at least six to a dozen betas reviewing.

As with alphas, you can create a questionnaire for your betas to fill out or allow them to comment directly on your WIP. After you have received all their comments, go through and evaluate them, fixing the errors they’ve pointed out.

Some authors will employ as many as fifty reviewers. That’s great if you can get that many, but expect a lot of work if all of them point out fifty separate things for you to work on. Some authors will also go through a second or third round of beta-readers too and I knew one guy who was working on his fifth round of beta-readers. If you’re a well-established author, a second round would be helpful, but anything else beyond that is likely to put you through analysis-paralysis–a common term among day traders who overthink a situation instead of making the trade.

You will not eliminate every 1-star or 2-star review, but you will mitigate many of them if you utilize proper methods for obtaining feedback.

Happy writing!