As far back as Aristotle and the very first plays, story tellers have known that the secret to keeping your audience on the edge of their seats, or readers turning pages, is to keep them in a state of tension.
As story tellers it’s our job to manipulate our audience’s emotions. To keep them moving between hope and fear, relief and anxiety, joy and despair.
Writers can learn from sports, yes, even football! The best games have suspense in buckets – that’s why watching footy on a Friday night is so appealing to most people. Audiences and readers want in story what they avoid at all cost in life – conflict, anxiety, opposition and tension.
However, the battle for the win is even more gratifying when the game is close. Games won by one point in the final minute keep us on the edge, enduring and enjoying a tension that is almost uncomfortable, right up until the end. So much better than a game where right from the first ten minutes we know it’s a walk over.
It’s the same with story. If a protagonist too easily achieves their goals, then where’s the drama? Where’s the fun of all those uncomfortable emotions?
The opposition to a character’s goals have to be almost insurmountable. The protagonist needs to do her very best, make plans and execute them, but then fail or be thwarted until that very last minute – maybe even just as the final bell is ringing. Maybe all her attempts will only make things worse. Maybe self-sabotage will undermine her at a key point, when finally everything seemed to be flowing her way.
As writers we want the reader to call out “No!” then turn the page to see what happens next, hoping against hope that she’ll somehow dig herself out of the hole she’s created.
It’s that movement between hope and fear that writers need to keep in mind as they shape their stories. If not in the first draft, then definitely in the second.
Check each scene. Is there some sort of conflict? What is the outcome of this conflict? Are we led to believe the character can achieve her goal, which seems or paramount importance to her whether it’s life-threatening or not? Or are we terrified that she’ll never get what she wants?
Does it seem like she’ll finally find her missing child? Or does it appear obvious that all she’ll ever find is bones?
Will that boil in the middle of her forehead heal before the big date? Or will boils spread all over her face and make her a leper?
Every scene, if not every page, should play its part in this dance between hope and fear, keeping readers anxiously turning pages, even in the bath.
Examine stories you love. How has the writer choreographed this dance? Look for conflict. In the very best novels and screenplays, conflict will be evident in almost every page, in every interaction between characters. Even a character’s inner dialogue can involve conflict, the fight between desire and better judgement.
Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan is a harrowing and deeply moving film that is a wonderful example of how conflict can be used to intensify every scene. In a scene already filled with drama, when a young mother is being put into an ambulance the trolley doesn’t work properly, making an already unbearable moment excruciating.
Conflict can come from others, ourselves, the environment, government or police, even furniture. Throw it in wherever you can and watch your story bloom. Manage the readers’ emotions, keep them swinging between hope and fear and you’re on your way to writing something no reader can put down.
Keep them up at night, make them laugh and make them cry. Have fun doing it.
How do you ramp up conflict in your stories? How do you move readers between hope and fear? I’d love to hear your ideas!
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Lots of love,