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.

Villains: A Twisted Love Story

Villains. Most stories don’t make sense without them. They are needed to propel a story forward, by giving our hero someone to confront. Nothing will make your hero look even more heroic than a worthy opponent. Therefore, villains are quite important. And they need to be written well in order to give your story the grit that it deserves.

That is why motivation is a very key ingredient when creating a villain. Many times, writers will put in a lot of effort into creating their main characters or even their side characters, but they’ll come up short on the villain. Villains, while they are the bad guys, they still need to be more than just being bad – they need a motivation for being bad. 

So, what makes a good villain? Well, the easiest way to begin building your villain is to understand that villains are ordinary people who have experienced complicated pasts. And personally, what better motivation than love? Think about it – the stories that we enjoy most, the ones that resonate with us most, are the ones rooted in love. Love can be a very powerful motivator, not just for your hero, but also for your villain. While a hero’s motivation of love for a family member, a significant other, or a civilization usually yields good results, a villain’s has the opposite effects. But if you think about it, the best villains are the ones with relatable backstories that serve as motivation for their evil-doing. And who is more relatable than someone who is laying everything out on the line for someone or something that they deeply care about?

While you’re writing your story, be sure to pay special attention to your villain and give them a backstory that is relatable. Perhaps something along the lines of a twisted love. 

Author Interview with Melinda Kucsera

Dragon Soul Press had the privilege of sitting down to interview Author Melinda Kucsera.


How long have you been writing?

Melinda has been writing fantastic short stories, novels, and books when not being kidnapped by dragons or chased by armies of fictional creatures. (Her characters do, on occasion, rescue her.) She leaves the running of her newsletter to the cast of lovable characters who hog her inbox AND handle all her interviews for her. ❤

Enough about Melinda, it’s us you’re really interested in, her cast of characters! 🙂 Join us every week for a new story by visiting: www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters

When Melinda is left alone, she writes mostly about a young man (Sarn) and his adorable son (Ran) who might be one of the characters responding to this interview. They adventure together through a fantastic world full of enchanted people and things and take on all kinds of monsters and mayhem. It’s all in a day’s work when you live steps away from an enchanted forest.

Oh, and, we have a special portal in our cave that connects to your world and gives us exclusive access to our scribe whenever we feel an adventure coming on. You can grab the first four books of the Curse Breaker series here: https://www.books2read.com/b/bP516z

Join us on an adventure now. 

What inspires you?

Well, since I and my fellow cast members are real people living in a real, though, fantastic world, we are Melinda’s inspiration. This is Ran, son of Sarn, the Curse Breaker in the Curse Breaker books.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I was explaining our reality to you. 😊

Since we only exist when you read us, getting more page time is essential. It’s literally a matter of life and death for us. So, we must make sure our Scribe, Melinda, is continuously inspired.

That’s why there’s a line outside her door full of prospective characters, and each has a story to tell. We must bar the doors, or she’d never get any books done. There are that many stories breaking down her door.

Good thing there’s this handy portal in her apartment. When the queue gets too rambunctious and threatens to break down her door, we spirit her away to our world. Then all Melinda needs to do is write down our adventures as we live them.

Through some alchemical process, books are created from our running amok in fantasy land. You’ll have to ask our Melinda about that process because we have nothing to do with it. Our job is to get that all-important page time, and we’re really good at that.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?

Woah there, hold up a minute. Other people aren’t allowed to influence our Scribe. Melinda’s apartment is a no-influence zone. Seriously. We don’t allow anyone to mess with her process. Somehow, she can see what goes on in our world even when we don’t kidnap her. Chronicling that mayhem doesn’t require any influence except occasionally from us when she does silly things like try to outline our adventures.

No one’s life has ever followed a script exactly, and neither do ours. We do what we’re going to do and trust her to capture it in words. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever?

The cast of her books certainly thinks so, but we might be a tad biased. There’s a book coming out soon that illustrates just how Melinda can see our world, and how characters like me can cross over to your world. It’ll be called Curse Breaker’s Companion: Catch the Scribe (because that’s what we’ll be doing in that book). 

One last thing before I move off this topic. I might have borrowed Melinda’s computer to type up this interview. Don’t tell her about that, okay? She gets upset if we drop in when she’s not home.  

What do you like to read in your free time?

Our Scribe buys the deal of the day on audible most days, so her taste in books ranges wildly from fantasy to science fiction to physics books to lectures on all manner of topics to mysteries, thrillers, true crime and so on. She’ll basically listen to anything that’s not a bodice-ripping romance or a horror story.

I might be a child in a fictional story, but I often borrow her cellphone to keep in touch with readers through Melinda’s social media accounts. So, she doesn’t listen to anything that’s overtly sexual, very scary, or too violent in case I accidentally overhear it. She particularly likes mysteries, hard sci-fi especially when the hard sci-fi is blended with military fiction, and police procedurals. She cannot read enough of those last two.

What projects are you working on at the present?

Melinda’s working on a new series that’s really close to her heart. It’s a mother-daughter fantasy series called Robin of Larkspur. It begins with Hunter’s Night, part of the Rogue Skies: A Limited Edition Science Fiction and Fantasy Boxed Set. Grab it now while it’s on preorder for a buck: https://www.books2read.com/rogueskies then get ready for Rogue Night, the explosive sequel.

Details about Rogue Night can be found here: https://melindakucsera.com/rogue-night/ It will publish around the same time as Hunter’s Night/Rogue Skies, so you won’t have to wait like our editor and our beta readers to find out what happens next. 

Both books feature me as an adorable baby. In Hunter’s Night, I get kidnapped and need a rescue, but Papa needs help to take me back from my supernatural kidnappers. Too bad they also nabbed Robin’s baby because she’s one formidable lady. She and Papa team up in Rogue Night to get me and her daughter back. So do check those books out. 

As of right now, Melinda’s still editing it and dithering about sending it in. It’s darker than what she usually writes, so she’s doing the insecure author thing. Don’t worry. I’ll submit it for her if she procrastinates too long.

I think it’s a great story and she already has the next two episodes planned out, one for each of the next two Dragon Soul Press Anthologies, Lost Love and Reign of Queens

What impact have they had on your writing?

That’s a great question. Hunter’s Night/Rogue Skies and Sealed in Blood had a profound impact actually. Since they had iron-clad word limits, our intrepid Scribe had to learn how to pause our shenanigans.

We did not enjoy being paused. I just have to get that off my chest. It made me all itchy, but it was for a good cause.

Adventures tend to lead to other adventures, which is great for real life but not so great in a book that has an iron-clad word limit. But adventures in real life don’t have limits on length.

So it took our scribe, Melinda, some time and trials to learn how to stop us from haring off on another adventure long enough to end one the book and start another. Of course, we’ve been learning from her too. Just because a book has an end doesn’t mean it’s THE END.

We can always sneak in new scenes and get more page time during the editing rounds because Melinda always leaves a few thousand words in reserve. The cast might be sharpening this skill as we speak. Just don’t tell Melinda. She hasn’t caught on yet.  

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? (If you write more than one, how do you balance them?)

Melinda didn’t really choose to write fantasy. We chose her to be our Scribe. 😊 We really do kidnap her, and armies of fantastic creatures really do show up at her home and office to demand a story. Usually, a chase ensues because there are a lot of them and only one Melinda, and sometimes, her job requires her to do work that has nothing to do with writing fantasy books.

But our Scribe also needs her exercise to stay fit, right? We ensure she puts plenty of mileage on her much-abused sneakers every day. 😊

So given all of that, what’s a scribe to do but jot down the stories that fall into her lap and publish them? Then everyone wins especially us, her characters. Remember, we only exist when you read us, so getting that all-important page time is a matter of life and death.

What is the hardest part of writing?

Controlling our Newsletter-Dragon. No, I’m serious. Our newsletter subscribers are her horde, and she’s unbelievably demanding when it comes to newsletter stuff. She eats up so much of our Scribe’s time that could be devoted to chronicling our adventures.

The worst part is that we’re stuck in limbo every time the Newsletter-Dragon misbehaves, and she’s been cozying up to the eBook-Dragons that deliver our eBooks to stores!

I know. I see it too. A confrontation is coming between us, Melinda’s characters, and that damned dragon. It draws nearer with every episode of our newsletter. Watch our newsletter for it because that’s where it will play out, and this time, it’ll be a war between us.

You can sign up here to get our weekly adventures in your inbox: http://www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters Our dragon will horde your email address. No one will ever lay their hands on it. Not even us, its stars.

Where can readers learn more about you?

 Our website, of course: https://melindakucsera.com/

Check out all our books here: https://melindakucsera.com/the-curse-breaker-saga/

We also have past episodes of our newsletter adventures arranged chronologically here: https://melindakucsera.com/blog/ but our newsletter goes back to 2016. So, fans of it (and its stars) convinced our Scribe to novelize the earliest episodes, so readers don’t have to try to find them.

Since our website is digital and so is our dragon, she regularly messes with it. Those older episodes are there, but they’re not easy to find. Our Scribe has written about 4-5 novel-length adventures for us that took place exclusively in our newsletter over the years.

So, they’re coming to eBook in 2020. No more searching for them. They’ll publish as part of a companion series under the aptly titled, Curse Breaker’s Companion.  Take that you, dragon! Problem solved. 😊

We’re also on social media, but the best way to follow us is to subscribe to our weekly adventures: http://www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters

And that’s a wrap. This is Ran, son of Sarn, writing on behalf of the cast and our Scribe, Melinda, signing off. Have a great day!

Creating Good Female Villains

One thing I don’t like in fiction is female villains. A lot of their motivations tend to be cliche or at worst, misogynistic. It’s irritating that women villains cannot possess the same motivations of their male counterparts.

Here is a short post on helping you craft better female villains. I don’t say good because you still need to have good characterization as a skill, but if you get the motivation right, your villain will at least be better.

Cliche motivations for female villains are anything of the following:

  1. Anything related to “women’s issues.” The glass ceiling, relationships, unequal pay, domestic abuse, falling in love with a male Bad Boy, etc. Don’t use these issues as motivation to make the woman bad.
  2. “Amazon Women from Mars” or something along the lines of Women vs. Men in a misogynistic way.
  3. “Queen Bitch.” The female is a villain simply because she has power/money/magic, etc.

To have a motivation that doesn’t fall into these kind of traps, think of the tropes heroines are motivated to pursue and simply make the consequences of their actions bad. Despite this, they continue their goals.

For example: A super heroine pounds the living tar out of some bad guys who are trying to fire a laser at a nuclear plant thus making the Chernobyl disaster a walk in the park. Heroine saves the day. End of story. The villainess does the same thing. The bad guys die along with the support personnel who had no idea they were working on a laser to destroy a nuclear plant. This turns into a legal nightmare for the government who have a duty to enforce the law.

If this was a super heroine, she would probably hang up her cape and call it a day or mend her ways. The villainess won’t. The ends justify the means—after all, innocent lives were at stake. She does it again, this time to low-life bank robbers, then muggers, then to some teenagers vandalizing a beautiful park because she can’t control her strength (and doesn’t really care to). Sooner or later, the government has enough and puts resources to have her arrested.

The villainess now fights the government, the police, the National Guard, etc. She rationalizes they are nothing more than a system of control and the best way to deal with it is to destroy it.

One of the things that makes for a great villain is the ability to rationalize their actions in small steps, but it scales up. Real life crook Bernie Madoff didn’t wake up one morning and decided, “I’m going to create the biggest fraud in history today!” No, he altered a trade sheet here and there. He obtained and spent a $250k meant for investments here and there. He continued until he racked up billions in fraud. If he was caught in his very first year of defrauding investors, he would probably be out of prison by now. Change the gender and now you have a female villain whose primary motivation is greed, starts small, and then it builds up.

Happy Writing!