Tips For Sustaining Tension In Your Writing

Last week, I talked about giving characters agency, but that’s not all editors and agents request. Another thing they ask for is ‘tension’. If the reader doesn’t have a reason to care what happens next, you’ve lost your tension.

Wait. Before we get any further, I need to clarify:

Why ‘Conflict’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Tension’

You hear a lot about how stories need to start off with ‘conflict’, but that’s not quite true. What your story needs is tension.

A fight or chase scene can provide conflict, but it’s really just an unsubtle way of giving your readers tension they can understand. And you have to be sure it’s actively forwarding the plot!

If you’ve ever seen Matrix 2, think about the opening fight scene–that went on and on and on.

I’m an easy audience– I don’t typically critique while watching, I want to buy into the world and the story, and I’m very invested in even the cheesiest of movies. Plus? I have a well-honed startle reflex.

Before the 10-minute mark, I couldn’t sit on the edge of my seat any longer. I sat back, took a sip of my soda, and waiting for the fighting to finish so we could start the plot.

So, with that caveat, let’s talk about the:

Goats with locked horns.

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Types of Tension

  1. Fights
  2. Arguments
  3. Deadlines
  4. Curiosity (but not true confusion or you’ve lost your reader)
  5. “Disquiet-itude”* – where something is a little off
  6. Unanswered questions
    • Romantic questions! Will they or won’t they?
    • Mystery questions! Who was the real killer?
  7. The list goes on and on…
Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

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Ways To Add Tension

Most of these should be familiar, but I’d be remiss if I left them out.

  1. Get into the scene as late as possible, and get out as soon as the scene’s main character has made a decision about the next action.
    • In Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, there’s a scene that showed Daenerys after the council decided against her, raging against them. And the scene ends when Daenerys decides what to do next — before letting the reader/viewer in on the plan.
  2. Fight scenes aren’t tense by themselves – the stakes they’re fighting for are what adds the tension.
  3. Hinting is better than showing – think about horror movies.
  4. The Main Character Wants something
  5. The Main Character is invested in something
    • Emotionally, physically, financially -> it doesn’t matter what combination of these three, but you know it’s the character’s weak point
  6. The Scenery – use word choice to set up the tension
    • Have your metaphors say more than just the comparison
    • Look at your verb choice. Is there something more precise that sets the mood?
  7. The five senses
    • Building on the scenery, have the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches enhance the tension and mood
  8.  Contrast
    • Is everyone else tense, except for one character? What do the rest of the characters know that your one character doesn’t know?
    • Is your character tense when everyone else is relaxed? What does your character know that the rest don’t know?
  9. Have something be obvious to the reader, that the main character doesn’t react to as expected.
  10. Proximity – both time and distance affect tension
  11. Pacing – Shorter chapters. Shorter sentences. More action.
A hammock overlooks the water.

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Ways To Lower Tension

Well, other than playing with the things above, (in a reverse way), there are things that writers do that lower tension, either intentionally or not.

  1. Writers often start with setting the scene chapters before the true story starts
  2. Writers fulfill the reader’s expectations, with no twists
  3. Humor – there’s a reason gallows humor exists. If you guessed “breaking the tension” in real life, you’d be right.

Conclusion

Remember, you want to keep the tension in your story to compel the reader onwards, but as with any genre, sustaining high tension is exhausting. You need to give the readers (and characters) time to process the plot.

By playing with the levels and types of tension in your story, you can make a story that your reader just can’t walk away from.


These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Sustaining Tension in Your Writing”, featuring writers/panelists David Walton, Gail Martin, Scott Andrews, and moderated by Mark VanName.

 

* Scott Andrews’s word

Tips On Writing Characters With Agency

One thing you hear about a lot when you start sending your manuscript out into the world is ‘agency’. Most agents (and publishers) are looking for characters who make things happen, not ones who merely react to the situation they’re stuck with.

In general, inciting incidents — i.e. That problem that kicks the main character out of their run-of-the-mill daily lives and into the story — are externally delivered. But HOW the character decides to respond can demonstrate either agency or a lack-there-of.

Most stories that feature a journey start off with the main character having little-to-no agency, but as the story goes on, they come into their own.

Let’s look at Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. A swarm of dwarves shows up, demands dinner, and then Gandolph tells Bilbo he’s needed for the adventure. Bilbo is a grumpy host and eventually kicks them out in the morning — but at the last second realizes he’ll regret having missed his chance, and follows the dwarves out of Hobbiton, joining their quest.

sky ditch eye hole

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Pitfalls With Granting Characters Agency

But, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking your character has full agency, when in fact, they’re bound by gender or race tropes. For example, women typically have options when it comes to WHAT to wear, WHICH spouse, and HOW MANY children.

A TRICK FOR TESTING AGENCY PARITY: To test if a character has too much, too little, or just right parity, try mentally switching genders and/or race, and seeing if their choices seem too free or restrictive.

The tricky part about agency is that the decisions that your characters make have to be internally consistent with your understanding of the characters. However, you have to realize that this is one place where truth can be stranger-than-fiction–and more forgiving. In real life, people don’t always act internally consistent. But, in a novel, if you don’t set up their out-of-character decisions properly, you’re going to lose the reader. They’ll be thrown out of the story and might not pick it up again.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let your characters surprise you. Often, if you feel like your characters are ‘fighting you’, this can lead to you learning or discovering new motivations or backgrounds to this character that you hadn’t thought out before. By letting the character realizations guide you, you can make your characters more 3-dimensional and write a better-rounded story.

With ensemble casts, it can be hard to deliver agency to all the characters in all the plot-threads. USE that. You can have the character without agency react to that loss and the consequences thereof.

But sometimes? What the plot really needs is for that character to die.

NOTE: As a side-tip, 5 characters is usually the max number of people you can focus on in a particular scene or conversation. Think about it in real life, that’s where discussions fall out into side conversations, or the group is having a very orderly, controlled meeting.

Wood signpost, with worn red arrow pointing right. Greyed out mountains faintly behind it.

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When Characters Lose Agency

Why is Agency so important? What happens when your character loses it?

Well, this is when your story starts following tropes and can become 2-dimensional. Motivations can become lacking and the world grows flat.

The world stops reacting to the characters and nothing they do can influence the world around them.

Coverless side of 7 thick books.

Agency Expectations Within Genres

Now, having agency isn’t the end-all and be-all of a good novel. Different genres have different levels of agency.

Mystery and suspense novels tend to have less agency (unless you’re talking a detective novel, ’cause those peeps go looking for trouble). There’s a crime and then the main character is compelled to figure out who–or what–is behind it.

Novels with an underlying horror element or sense of doomed-inevitability can slowly reveal that the main character(s) have less and less agency and were compelled to make what they thought were their own choices by inescapable machinations behind the scenes.

If you’ve ever watched the anime ‘Evangelion’, it seems like all the characters, except the main character, are strong characters, making decisions and trying to save the day. But, as you near the end of the series, you realize that all their actions and decisions were set up as to lead toward the inevitable ending that I won’t spoil here.

Conclusion

Make sure you know what sort of story you want.

Do you want the characters’ agency to grow or shrink as the story goes on?

By giving or taking away choice, you can influence the entire feel and direction of your story.


These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Writing Characters With Agency”, featuring writers/panelists John Walker, Jennifer Brehl, Ada Palmer, DL Wainright, and moderated by Bugsy Bryant.

 

Balticon 52

No query corner this week: instead here’s a quick review of Balticon 52. I’ll be going into more depth on some of the panels later.

After a long week away from home learning about Aeronautics, my bed got me for one night before I hit Balticon 52. I saw old friends, made new ones, and–as always–brought home loads of notes to share with you!

Balticon 52

For those of you who don’t know, Balticon is an annual Science Fiction and Fantasy convention hosted in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s not a for-profit convention like the Comic-cons and the AwesomeCon’s of the world, this one is a labor a love, run by fans, for fans.

Balticon is a bit smaller and more mellow than DragonCon, though chock-full of activities and panels. There are writers and agents, scientists and publishers galore. But, unlike some of the writer-targeted conventions, there are no ‘pitching sessions’, etc. At least outside of BarCon* (the habit of some agents/etc to hang out at the bar. ‘Can I buy you a drink’ is often a good conversation starter…)

In years past, I’ve attended up to 21 different writing panels and workshops in the 4 days of the convention. This year was a bit lighter. Partially because some panels repeat, and partially due to me pacing myself a bit better.

I would have liked to get to the convention before the traffic picked up on Friday afternoon, but it was not to be.

gray plane wing

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As I mentioned earlier, I spent last week learning about aeronautics and my flight home wasn’t until after 4pm on Thursday.

If I had to list the biggest misconception I had corrected, it would be the concept of the ‘sonic boom.’ I’d thought it was a boom that emitted from the aircraft as it passed the speed of sound, radiating out from that point in space.

Nope! Instead, it’s the sound of the air leaving the speed of the aircraft and returning to standard pressure. It follows the vehicle like a dude water-skiing follows the boat.

But anyway, I’d made the decision to schedule an evening flight home to DC, aiming for the latest flight possible as to not miss any of the class. As it was, I had to miss the final review and the certificate ceremony.

I was pleased because flying back the next day would have me landing at Dulles, during rush hour, on a Friday–OF A HOLIDAY WEEKEND. Basically, a nightmare for getting to Baltimore.

However, that decision set me up for a 90-second layover in Detroit.

woman walking on pathway while strolling luggage

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WHAT? Do airlines even allow that?

Well, it started out as a 42-minute layover, with the same airline, so it seemed reasonable.

Until you realize that planes start boarding 30 minutes before takeoff, and typically have to close the doors at least 20 minutes before taxiing.

So, that leaves me with a bare 22 minutes before they stop boarding.

Plus, that doesn’t include disembarking time. And did I mention it was a smaller plane so my rolling luggage wouldn’t fit in the sloped overhead compartment, so I had to wait for my luggage to be brought to me?

There I am, watching the clock, a map of the Detroit terminal on my phone, ready to run. And run I did, because my plane arrived at gate C15 and my next flight was at gate A73. The FAR end.

There were several people-movers (moving sidewalks) and I scurried. And in 12 minutes, I made it to my gate. With about a minute to spare before they belatedly began to board my flight.

*whew*

After I got home, I made the intelligent decision to assemble a new nightstand that had arrived while I was gone. I finished around 1:15am. What can I say? I haven’t assembled the 2 bookcases that also arrived! Because I couldn’t assemble just one. And after assembling them, I would’ve needed to finish unpacking from my move! (not my trip)

But back to the convention. By the time I got up, got moving, and got on the road, it was 1:30pm. And my radiator needs to go into the shop.

Blue car on the side of the road, hood up, person in blue shirt and khakhis looking in.

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Fun Facts About Morgan’s Radiator Issues:

  • It was 90+ degrees on Friday
  • If I went over 65 mi/hr, I could have my AC on
  • If I was under 40 mi/hr, I could have the AC off, but the temperature still cool
  • If I was under 30 mi/hr, I had to have the heat on
  • If I was in stop and go traffic, I had to blast the heat

If I didn’t? My radiator overheat warning would come on! I only had to pull over twice before I got my levels properly calibrated.

I arrived, splurged on valet parking, and the line for Registration was done in under 15 minutes, my dad handed off my room key, and I was ready to convention!


Panels I Managed to Attend At Balticon

  1. Writing Characters with Agency
  2. Sustaining Tension In Your Writing
  3. Keeping Your Topic Interested (ended up being a lot about how to interview people)
  4. Reading Your Own Work (workshop)
  5. Pitching Your Own Work (workshop)
  6. What Makes An Idea Worth Exploring
  7. Ask Me Anything – Editors & Publishers
  8. Sassafras – (Concert! Including a Loki/Thor duet)
  9. Class Structures in SF/F
  10. [Nap Attack — missed some panels and was late to the next one]
  11. Useful Rabbit Holes For Writers
  12. What Good Is An Agent (I thought it would be preaching to the choir, but got useful stuff!)
  13. Making Fantasy Feel Realistic
  14. This Kaiju Life  (live podcast)
  15. Writing Compelling Villains
  16. Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of) (mostly boils down to writing what you’re passionate about, don’t chase trends, Zombies, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance are currently out, Steampunk may make a resurgence in the next 3-5 years. And vampires are coming back)

Cosplay!

 

 

I like to wear silly shirts, play dress up, and–I like bad puns. I kicked off my weekend with a ‘My Weekend is all Booked!’ T-shirt, and then followed it up with my Book-shaped bookbag wearing copper and red dragon, otherwise known as my ‘BookWyrm’. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of my button-eyed Other-Morgan, as inspired by Coraline, but I did manage to creep out a few people and get several double-takes. Maybe next time?

I lost the hall costume votes by 2 votes TO A MUPPET!! A guy dressed as a Jurassic Park scientist, with a giant egg and a baby velociraptor muppet who visited the kids’ room during their ‘Dinosaur Dig’ hour, but STILL. I lost to a muppet. I blame the lack of costume title/explanation on the vote sheet.

 


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I also helped hostess the DC 2021 bid party!

Confession: I’m a second generation geek and when I decided to hit Balticon, I emailed my dad and asked, “Hey, can I room with you?” To which his reply was, “Only if you’re okay helping Bill with the Bid Party. Cause I’m signed up, as usual, to work the midnight-3am shift in the ConSuite (food and relaxation space open to all Con attendees).

Hostessing is something I’m usually pretty comfortable with, so he didn’t really need to talk me into it.

Anyway–at SF/F conventions like this, room parties are usually on the ‘party floor’, and put on by other cons that want you to attend them as well, committees bidding for the next WorldCon to be scheduled, or other groups. You wander down the hall, check out their snack and drink offerings, and chat with people.

We got a fair number of sign-ups of people buying supporting memberships for the DC bid (currently unopposed…) I gave out tiny stickers as long as people promised not to vote against DC, and the last people wandered out at 2:52am–the last party to shut down on the hall by quite a bit.

Good chats and I hit the chips&dip pretty hard.

I cleaned up, changed into my pajamas, and the alarm went off. 3:03am. So, I tromped down 5 flights of stairs and waited for the all clear. It took about 10 minutes. Then, back up to the room, helped carry all the left-overs to the ConSuite.

I’m sure I was asleep before 4am, but barely.


Between panels, I managed to fit in meals with friends, a few walk-throughs of the dealers’ room and art show, and, of course, SUNDAY night’s ‘return of the fire alarm’ at a more respectable 12:48am.

I met a lot of lovely people everywhere I went, dropped into a round of CodeWords for a bit, and overall had a pleasant visit.

Now, I’ve got to wait til next year.