STIRRING THE PLOT – How to Build Tension in Your Stories

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As writers our primary aim is to keep our readers turning pages, engaged with our stories. Yes, we’re really quite wicked. We like to keep our readers up all night. We also like to make them cry. And laugh too if we can. We want our readers to feel something, to be moved by our stories. And maybe, just maybe, to be changed a little, for the better.

But in order to do that, first we have to get them to finish our story. So we need to have narrative drive, suspense. Forward motion.

We do this in a number of ways.

SET UP QUESTIONS

We set up questions at the start of our story – that’s our hook. Depending on whether you’re writing a novel or a story those questions will be big – Will Tracy survive the volcanic explosion? Or small – Will Bill make peace with his father? Actually, maybe all story questions need to be big – Ben making peace with his father is enough for a novel – probably more than Tracy and her volcano. And of course, if we put the two together…?

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CREATE A CRUCIBLE SITUATION

That’s the true secret of creating tension in your writing. It’s what Sol Stein calls “The Crucible Situation”. A crucible, apart from being a great play about witches, is an old fashioned term for a cooking pot. In modern terms we’d call it a pressure cooker.

What it means is that you put your story and characters under pressure. Put them in a situation they cannot easily escape from.

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Enemies are trapped in a lift together. Ex-lovers are forced to work together on an important work project with the boss watching on. Estranged siblings are forced to organise a 90th birthday for their mother together. Or a couple break up then are stuck together quarantined on a cruise ship. A bomb has been put under the building where warring families have come together to hear a will being read.

THROW IN A TICKING BOMB

The ticking time bomb works a treat. Not only can you throw in a crucible situation but also a time limit. Like Cinderella only having until midnight before she loses all her finery. Like that volcano about to explode. Like that tsunami wave dragging far, far out just before it crashes in. Like a lover about to leave forever on a plane (hence all the rom coms that have one party running through an airport at the end)

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Let’s just say your story idea is about Ben whose father was a mean and violent alcoholic in Ben’s childhood but has now reformed and is trying to make amends. Yes, lots of story material there.

We’ve got our hook question – Will Bill make peace with his father?

Let’s add a crucible situation – Let’s say Bill has a sister and it’s her wedding. She’s forgiven their father and has asked Ben to play nice for her wedding. Ben is stuck with his old man for a whole day and night. They can’t escape each other. Plus, there’s alcohol.

And a time bomb – Ben’s dad has cancer, a bad one. He’s been told he only has a few months to live. Now the pressure on Ben to make peace is urgent.

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That should keep your reader turning pages.

Hope those ideas help. Use them on a story you’ve already got that may be lacking oomph. Add a crucible situation and a time bomb and watch them blossom.

Let me know how you go.

Write up a storm!

Lots of love,

Edwina xx