Being a Better Writer: Escalating Tension

All right, so this topic has been on the list for a while, and it’s high time it gets crossed off. Which means … I’ve got to talk about it. Time to see how much knowledge I can impart! So here goes!

So, before on this site (several times in fact, if memory serves) we’ve spoken about the three act structure, or the rise and fall of action, or pacing … Like I said, if memory serves, this topic has come up quite a bit. Anyway, with that, the classic plot timeline has come into play. You know the one. Rising and falling action, a climax, all that jazz? Hang on, I made one at one point. Take a look.

Yup. That thing. Like I said, we’ve talked about it before. And we’ve touched on key points, such as the falling tension, the climax, the resolution, the stinger, or even the various parts. But one part of that timeline that I don’t believe has ever been talked about on this blog is the moments of rising tension.

Or, to put it more directly, we’ve never talked about how one goes about doing that. It’s been made perfectly clear that the tension does have to rise between each climax—as is so subtlety stated by the label “Moments of Rising Tension” on the diagram there, but we’ve never really discussed how to do this.

And truth be told, it is something that attention and care needs to be given to. After all, when you break it down, a good chunk of your story is going to be moments of rising tension. Because you can’t simply have your story move from climax to climax. Well, I mean, you could, but it wouldn’t be a good story. See, the climaxes only matter because the audience has had the moments of rising tension to mentally prepare for it. If there’s no time for the audience to prep, than you end up with little more than a series of fights with little or no weight behind them. Kind of like a few of the Transformers movies. And that right there should be enough of a warning that we don’t want our story to take that route.

Okay, maybe you haven’t seen one of those films (Though if you like giant robot fights, you should. Just go in with no other expectations other than lots of giant robot fights and you should come out okay). So let’s break it down for a you a little more. Why are the moments of escalating tension important?

Well, the first reason I would bring up is that since, as pointed out earlier, moments of rising tension are going to make up a large part of your story, they give the audience time to digest everything and understand the stakes your characters face. Which is one reason why you simply don’t want a story to move from climax to climax. When you do that, it’s very easy for the audience to become lost. Crud, just ask someone to summarize the plotline of a fighting game that isn’t Injustice (with its 20+ minute cutscenes between each fight to explain what’s going on). Unless they’re a die-hard fan who’s read all the extra materials … odds are that they can’t. It’s just a series of fights.

Furthermore, it’s hard to develop certain aspects of a story during a fight or a climax. You can develop some sure. Your character is a master of Aikido? Sure, having a big battle may do well to show that off. But good luck showing off the non-combative elements of your characters or your world when they’re not locked in some climatic scene. And this doesn’t just go for stories with action climaxes, either. Even in something like a romance, where say a character must choose between two lovers for the climax, there’s little point in having the characters vying for the lead’s attention to detail all the reasons that they should be the one chosen right then and there. That should be something the protagonist already knows from earlier in the story, as well as the reader. So you need these moments of rising tension, regardless of the type or genre of the story you’re writing, in order for the reader to learn about the world, characters, etc, etc, etc.

Okay, we’re getting close to going off topic here, but hopefully you get that there’s a need for escalating tension in your story, or rising tension. But now, the question that today’s topic was dedicated to discussing: How do you make the tension escalate? Because most of us have probably read a story where the tension didn’t rise, where the moments between climaxes felt empty, shallow, or perhaps just plain boring. This happens when a story doesn’t escalate its tension, which results in … Well, that image above? Revisualize it, but instead of with rising and falling curves, a series of flat lines. Just long, flat periods followed by a sharp, jagged jump to a climax, then back to flatness again.

Jarring, isn’t it. And dull? You get both those things when your tension fails to rise. Not only does it make the meat of the story boring, but my use of the word “jarring” a moment ago wasn’t unintentional, either, as the climactic moments will, even if awesome, feel … well, out of place. And still somewhat unfulfilling, what with the lack of tension beforehand.

Right, enough prattling on about why it’s so important that we get our rising tension taken care of properly. How do we go about adding tension to our story … without making things drag or become boring?

First things first: we raise the stakes.

Actually, no, scratch that. That comes second. First, we want to make sure that the reader understands the stakes. What’s at risk. So we need to introduce them, set them up, so that we can then build tension around them.

Note that this can, and likely should, go hand in hand with your smaller climaxes over the course of the story. For simplicity’s sake, let’s go with the classic “Farm-hand becomes a hero” story arc and talk about the tensions there.

Where to start? Well, usually these “farm-hand heroes” start off with the first act summarizing why they left the farm. So what would be the rising tension there? Easy! The introduction would begin by introducing the farm, establishing the “stakes,” or in this case, what the protagonist holds important—along with, if the story is any good, a little bit of added information about the world.

So, a story following this setting might talk about the protagonist’s duties, how they came to have them, any friends and family, etc. It also may hint at the larger world and whatever conflicts are to come later (foreshadowing … oooOOOOoooo!). But then, once the story has set up the stakes, set up what the protagonist cares about or is important, the story starts to introduce … well, let’s call them cracks. Hints that things might not be going well.

Say for example that our protagonist is a farm-hand on a dairy farm. Establishing the stake might be that the farm is heavily dependent on the amount of milk it can produce and that times have been tough for others lately, so they need to keep producing. If they lose their prime milkers, the farm could suffer trouble. This is a potential conflict that the reader has to worry about, something that can harm the protagonist.

Now, how do we escalate this? You gradually bring in elements that threaten to disrupt the situation. So in this case, you could have the farm hands worrying that their cows might get sick, or maybe even that some rustlers might try to steal them. You can then weave in elements of the protagonists day that suggest to the reader that something is going to happen. Strange, out-of-town folks spotted, or some of the cattle being less skittish than usual.

A good trick here is to throw out a red herring or two. For example, the real problem might be rustlers, but the protagonist is so worried that a disease could run through the animals that he worries about one acting listless anyway. And since they don’t know that the animal is just acting odd for some other reason, they worry about it, and so does the reader. The tension is raised because the animals might be sick, there may be strange rustlers in town, and they don’t know which to believe.

There could be other things slowly raising the tension as well. Maybe rumors of a war with a neighbor. Or crud, even something as simple as an influx of experienced workers from other farms losing farmhands threatening to put the protagonist out of a job. Point is, the stakes are established, and then you bring in elements that threaten them.

But here is where things get tricky. First, your stakes have to matter, and second, there has to be some sort of tangible threat hanging over them. And that threat has to be real. It can’t be either A) something that wouldn’t really cause trouble or B) never deliver. If it does one or either of those things, it’s not a real threat, and your reader will go into the climax without a real sense of tension, since the threat to the stakes isn’t real.

You counter this by making the threats threats. As in, let them actually do something. The protagonist’s herd is in danger of getting sick? Or under threat from rustlers? Let some of it happen. Make the threat real. The specter of a protagonist losing something is one thing, but actually losing something cements the threat and shows how serious it can be, which in turn will make the climax all the more stressful (but exciting) for the reader. And, if you’re writing a story that has multiple stakes in it … don’t be afraid to let a character lose one entirely. Or maybe two. That’s up to you, but the loss of even one will significantly increase the stakes of the others.

So: introduce the stakes, then put them under threat as the story moves on. How you do this, as well as what the stakes are, is up to you. But that’s the gist of it.

However … I still want to talk about one more thing. Drawing out tension.

You’ve seen a horror film, I expect. A good one, like Alien. Well, you might have noticed that in those films, and in other forms of media storytelling, a long, drawn out experience can be very tense indeed. This is tricky to do when writing, but a scene that carefully paces itself can be incredibly stressful to the audience … provided it’s not overdone, which is a skill in knowing the audience’s limits in and of itself.

Anyway, this is done by putting things “on the knife edge,” so to speak. So you take those tensions that you built up earlier, the stakes that are under threat, and you put them in a win/lose situation that isn’t resolved immediately. Sort of like throwing them up in the air. The reader knows that eventually, they’re going to come back down and land. How they’ll land—face up, face down, some other way—they don’t know, though and in the meantime, that tension is stretched tight, like a wire.

You can play that wire like an instrument, too. Whatever your setting, once you’ve made it clear that something is about to go down, one way or another, until it does, you’ve got that feeling stretched out and can use it to pull in the reader.

In this case, though, don’t forget pacing. If you let a situation that is incredibly tense last for too long, the reader will either burn out or stop respecting the tension. And the tighter and more urgent the imminent threat, the less time you’ll be able to keep it stretched at full capacity before the string “snaps.” Hence why while most stories will gradually increase tension through the rising tension moment, they really don’t tend to throw too much of it up in the air for long, and will save the majority of it for the climax or the lead-in to the climax.

Why? For the same reason that we need to remind the reader that the stakes are under threat by perhaps showing them suffering to the threat. The longer a tense moment goes on unresolved, the less of a threat it becomes. Sort of like a standoff that stretches on for too long; the tension has just been bled out. If you want what tension you’ve raised to stay tense, it can’t continue indefinitely. It has to come to a stop. When that stop is, and when you can put it off for another page or two … Well, that’s up to your audience and your skill.

So, recap! A story needs escalating tension, or you’ll lose your audience with either, a flat, uninteresting plot “arc” (lack of one, really), or a bunch of climactic moments that really aren’t climactic and lose meaning next to one another. But in order to have that rising tension, there needs to be something at stake. So you have to establish what the protagonist values, cares about, or doesn’t want to lose and then establish threats for these things. Ramp up the threat as you approach a climax, and make sure that it is established as a real threat, with potential for loss! Then, when you’ve neared the climax or are in the climax, throw things up into the air, stretching the tension like a tight wire. The tighter the wire, and the more urgent the threat, the less time you’ll be able to keep things at “full threat level” before the audience gets bored or the wire “snaps,” so be sure to pace your tension out. Low-tension threats can be something that lasts a whole book, while immediate, high-tension threats shouldn’t be risked for much more than a few chapters unless you’re in the middle of a climax. This last one is tricky—only you and your audience really know what you can get away with, so play it by ear and play it carefully.

That’s all for this week, guys. Good luck with keeping your tensions constantly escalating.

Now get writing.

 

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Escalating Tension

  1. “The specter of a protagonist losing something is one thing, but actually losing something cements the threat and shows how serious it can be,”

    Hoban Washburne. Let us pour out a mustache in his remembrance.

    Like

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