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.

Choosing a Title

In my recent social media adventures of IG and the Twitterverse, I’ve seen the recurring question:

 How do I title my WIP? 

Today, I’m going to walk you through how I title my works-in-progress!

While I admit I’m primarily a young adult or new adult fantasy author, I promise this technique will work across a variety of works, encompassing all target audiences and genres.

  1. Make a list of:
    • Major Character(s)
      • Key Character Traits (~3 each)
        • Species or Races
        • Animals
    • Major Point(s) of Conflict
      • Key Themes (~3 each)
    • Major Items or Places
      • Artifacts 
      • Locations
    • Overall Mood / Atmosphere
      • Emotions (~3 each)
  2. Decide on your top 3-5 from the above list.
  3. Explore definitions, synonyms and like terms for the choice words. Utilize your favorite search engine for quotations or turns of phrase utilizing these words. Play with them, mix & match, combine them at your leisure. Have fun!
  4. Begin to narrow your list. (This is where your possible titles will form.)

Allow me to demonstrate!

  • Major Character(s):
    • Aurelia, the purple dragon shifter
    • Seru, the electrifying saint beast
    • Thalasia*, the blue siren
  • Major Point(s) of Conflict
    • The Great War (prior to the book)
    • The Magical Barrier Collapse
    • The Guiler Invasion
  • Major Items
    • Prismatic crystals (Violet & Purple)
    • Saint Beast’s enchanted collar
    • The Golden Lyre (siren charm)
    • The Golden Drake (dragon coin)
  • Major Places
    • The white sand beach (the site of the MC’s first encounter)
    • The bridge (point where Thalasia and guilers cross to Prisma Isle)
    • The central market (place of gathering for all species on land)
  • Overall Mood / Atmosphere
    • Rebellion
    • Overcoming Differences
    • Divergence
    • Friendship

Even my initial version–which may sound a tad over simplified–gives us more than enough to work with. I’ve highlighted my choices above. Feel free to circle the ones you like and cross out the ones you don’t particularly care for or get good vibes from. There will be plenty of options, so don’t stress. 

Upon analyzing the list, I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices I thought really encompassed the story as a whole. Now, I’m going to do a spot of research using a dictionary, thesaurus, and my preferred search engine. 

I’ll note down a few relevant examples of what I compiled below for ease of viewing.

  • Prismatic crystals
    • Colorful
    • Amethyst
      • A powerful and protective stone
      • Prevents overindulgence 
  • White sand beach
    • Ocean
      • Tides
  • Rebellion
    • Uprising
    • Revolution
  • Friendship
    • Unity
    • Togetherness

Again, my list might seem overly simplistic, but I’m well versed in this process, so don’t feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed if your list is a touch longer or shorter. Work with what you have!

Now, you play with the words and their meanings until you find an option, or a few, that you think suit your WIP. This go ‘round, my title jumped out at me as I was creating the list. That may or may not happen for you right away. Don’t get discouraged. You will find your title. Just be patient and continue working.

Decision time!

Once you have a handful of viable options, choose the one that you think works best and gives your story the proper spotlight in which to shine. 

Rebel Tides

As you can see, I chose the title Rebel Tides. I, of course, ran this and a few other options past my co-author, Krys Fenner, since we wrote this new adult fantasy novel together. I recommend you do the same with your titles, whether you have co-authors or just a few trusted writer pals. Obtaining a second or third opinion always helps. (Depending on their knowledge and familiarity of your WIP, it may also be wise to include a detailed summary of your story.) 

Easy, right? Or, at least easier than you initially thought.

This tried and true method of creating a title has worked for me for many years. It’s a method I turn to time and time again. I sincerely hope it helps you select your next title for your work-in-progress.

If it does, please, feel free to reach out and tell us about it! I love to hear from my fellow authors within the Writing Community. 

A few closing explanations on why I chose Rebel Tides as the title of my new adult fantasy novel. 

The initial story was intended to be a young adult novel, detailing the friendship formed between two rebellious heroines: a dragon shifter, Aurelia (my character) and Thalasia (Krys’ character), a siren. The two were set to adventure to a magical academy and discover themselves together in the process, making their share of mischief as they went.

Long story short, the collaboration changed hands–and publishers–before their story could be completed. 

In the revived and revamped form, their story shifted from a preteen coming-of-age journey to an action-packed struggle of survival, where the disappearance of a magical barrier cues a series of destructive incidents across the island a majority of the characters call home. Thalasia is initially blamed by my protagonist, Aurelia, who finds herself at odds with the newcomer. My secondary character, the saint beast, Seru decided to cozy up to Thalasia, even if it meant betraying his species in the process. 

Krys and I were beside ourselves at these dramatic and sudden changes demanded by our cast. But, we decided to roll with it and see where it went. In the end, Rebel Tides still fit our story–if for entirely different reasons. 

Our characters first encounter one another by the beach. As time progresses, it becomes evident they must rebel against the societal norms of Prisma Isle and their species to come together in order to save the island from guiler invaders. You might say, they need to create a shift or change the tides from the way things have always been toward a new way. In Thalasia’s and Seru’s case, they even seek to challenge and change fate itself. 


I appreciate you taking the time to read my first-ever blog post for Dragon Soul Press. I hope you enjoyed reading and partaking in the fun exercise provided. I’ll see you next time.

~Livi Luciana (a.k.a. the_rainbow_crow)

The Good Short Story Tips and Tricks: Hook and Pacing

DSP typically plans and produces six to twelve anthologies a year with a short story word count ranging from 5k to 15k words. Technically, there is no sole right way to write a short story, but there are a lot of wrong ways. However, we’ll focus on a couple of methods used to entice your reader and get them hooked on your story for the next twenty to forty pages.

Let’s assume you know the components for proper characterization, tension, theme, POV, etc. For a good short story, you only need to place heavy emphasis on two aspects of your story; a good hook and your scenes moving at a face pace toward the climax.

The Hook

The hook is the opening line or scene to ensnare your reader. It’s a statement that makes them develop an interest in your story right off the bat. For a short story, you want them vested in your tale from the very beginning because you don’t have a lot of words to develop your character or theme. There are several easy ways to write a hook that will have your reader jump into your story; in media res, mystery, and disturbing.

In medias res means, “in the middle of the action”. Instead of starting out those teenagers having sex by the lake and then getting killed one-by-one by the psychopath in a hockey mask, you start the story with one of them running for his life while being chased by the psychopath. In my story, Malicyne’s Puzzle, the hook took place with a battle between a pirate ship and a naval frigate. Thela’s Angel started with poor Thela getting beaten to a pulp by her husband in the inn. Daughter of Darkness starts the story with the holy knight, Rhain, landing a killing blow through a demon lord’s heart in the temple of night elves dedicated to the worship of the Tri-Headed Queen.

Mystery is a very common mechanism. You start out with a profound statement or an enigma for your story. In my book, Fallen From the Stars, it opens with the following:

“Come with me.”

A gunshot rang out, followed by a woman’s scream and the world turned to utter darkness. That’s all I can remember.

Was the main character shot? What happened? Who said, “Come with me?” Readers don’t find out until Chapter 12 Bad Memories, but in a short story, you reveal the mystery of the hook usually at the climax or at the end.

Disturbing is a less common one but is great for grimdark fantasy, horror, or something in which you’re going for shock value. It makes your reader shout, “WTF did I just read?!?” and then they are compelled to read on just to figure out why you wrote that. The Disturbing method will typically contain triggers (again, for shock value).

A word of warning about using the Disturbing method – know your audience. If you’re a fantasy writer who typically writes YA epic fantasy and you want to try your hand at grimdark fantasy, your loyal fans are in for a rude awakening. Secondly, a lot of publishers have a “no graphic [anything]” rule (or rules on certain triggers in general), so don’t violate submission guidelines by writing something that will make people wonder if you’re sane or turn your editor off to you.

Pacing

After you’ve written your hook, all your scenes following should be paced as if racing toward the climax. You’re not walking or building up to the climax, you’re running to it. A perfect example of how you should pace your story is by watching the promo trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. Here’s the link (Warning: Violence and Blood):

What did you see here if this was a story? An intrepid band of adventurers on a quest in monster-infested mountains filled with ice, snow, and death. There is the brief pause by the main character, a weapon is thrown from the ice and then boom, we are running through the action building up to the climax of the sorceress Morrigan casting a powerful lightning bolt that lays low the dragon. Did you note how fast the action moved and how it flowed from one character to the next? This is how your short story should flow from one scene to the next, and then building up to the climactic battle with the dragon at the end.

Master this and you’ll sweep your reader up for an intense ride with only a few thousand words.

Happy writing!