Improve The Tension Of Your Novel

So. You want to accomplish the ever-elusive, gold standard “show, don’t tell.” 

Every writer gets the dreaded feedback at some point. Somewhere between inspiration and execution, you got lost in the sauce. Whether it stemmed from lack of clarity in a scene, repetition, one scene too closely matching another, or (above all else) a lack of conflict, you need assistance. 

I’ll provide that for you now. 

The biggest trick has already been mentioned. About three sentences ago. 

CONFLICT. 

Tell your story, while rooting it in conflict, and the prose will come naturally. Dare I say, flawlessly. 

We’ve all heard the same ideas of person versus person, person versus machine, person versus self, etc., but for good reason. When your characters are pitted against something or someone else, the stakes are raised. 

“But Jam, I can’t have a fight scene or explosion on every page!” 

No the fuck you cannot, unless you’re Michael Bay and want no one to see your awful movie/read your awful book. 

I think the worst part about most blogs is how they don’t delve into what conflict can be. It’s not just a fight scene. It’s not a huge struggle bus to the struggle house. 

Look at it this way: 

Dan parked his car. He got out and walked into the restaurant. 

Okay. And? That’s boring. There’s nothing. There’s no reason to have it, and the scene wouldn’t change if you axed it.

Now look at when I add some conflict: 

Dan shoved the door closed, hitting his hand against the roof of his car. His eyes narrowed as he lifted his head, giving the restaurant a once-over. Tugging the lapels of his jacket, he headed inside, greeted with the stench of grease and potatoes. 

The same thing happens in both scenes. It’s a simple A to B sequence. 

But in the second version, you get so much more rich detail in only a few sentences (actually, just ONE more sentence than the first version). The writing is significantly deeper. 

I’ll tell you exactly why it works so well. “Shove” is a strong verb. He’s hitting his hands against the roof of the car. Instantly, you’re sent signals that this is a violent moment. Something is happening. You read on to find out exactly what. 

There is some form of conflict going on, though we can’t quite determine the root of it. This excerpt leaves us wondering, therefore: reading. In terms of showing over telling, we’re made aware that “Dan” makes himself presentable after his little fit. He clearly doesn’t want anyone to know he’s just thrown a tantrum, as he straightened up by pulling his jacket. 

Finally, there’s the smell. The use of the word “stench” implies STINKY. Gross. We all know what old, bad oil smells likes (unless you’re just too posh to go to a Denny’s at 1AM after a concert, but whatever). We’re probably pretty familiar with fried potatoes. There’s a scene forming in your head about where he could be. 

You might have expectations for how the scene progresses. 

All of this subtext is generated in what could be a throwaway sentence. Dan got out of his car and headed into the restaurant. 

In a properly written novel or screenplay, there are NO throwaway scenes. You have the power to turn every single second into a mini story. Pepper some description you didn’t add elsewhere. Add a detail that explains your character is confident, or nervous, or obnoxious. You can do that with the little moments. Maybe they have a skip in their step, or they stumble when walking a straight line, or they whistle too loud. 

You don’t have to dwell on it with paragraphs of prose. One or two sentences is enough to carry you to the next scene. And this isn’t to say you need this for EVERY little moment of point A to point B. A book would get far too weighted down if you did that. My advice is to wait for the editing phase. Look for opportunities and take the chance. 

Then of course, edit again. 

The editing is for another post, though. 

For now, I hope you take away how much creating conflict elevates the experience for your reader. Conflict IS tension. You’re planting a garden in their head, and the seeds are sowed without them realizing. They want to know what happens next because you made them feel something. 

Anyone can just talk, but reaching their emotions is an entirely different level of accomplishment.

Next week, I’ll expand a little more on tension, and talk about pacing.

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