Stakes and Sympathy Tension Series Part 3

Not only do stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot in fiction, they forge a connection with the reader as well. Stakes invest the action with tension. The key to generating stakes is to make your protagonists’ wants and needs BIG. Wants that stir us; needs that change lives.

In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder talks about the importance of harnessing primal forces in the crafting of personality. By primal forces, he means basic drives: survival, hunger, sex, fear of death, protection of loved ones. I’d add others, such as the urge to find love, concern for others, self-realization (a sense of purpose or self worth), and the need to grow up.

Stakes can shift over the course of a novel. Characters can be deluded. Needs can go unrecognized. Less important wants can give way to more compelling needs. Look at George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He thinks he wants to get away and have his own life, but ends up trapped, taking care of others. What he really needs is to reclaim his own value and let others take care of him.

A move in the direction of more significant stakes is a move in the direction of greater tension.

A further refinement is that stakes for the protagonist and the reader aren’t exactly the same. This difference is subtle, but essential to the goal of generating tension in the reader. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.) Readers pick up on stakes in at least three different ways:

1. Identification: I want what you want.

Identification tends to involve wants we all share, such as the basic drives listed above. For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we desperately want the characters to find love and beauty despite the ugliness and hate of their capture. We’d want that for ourselves. We identify with their feelings.

2. Empathy: I want you to have what you want.

Empathy invites readers to care about wants outside their own experience. It usually centers on more sympathetic characters, the strength of whose wanting can stir a sense of stakes in us all. I like the funny example of the Disney movie Ratatouille for this. I couldn’t understand how I was going to care about a rat learning to cook, but once I saw the movie, I did. In serious novels, this approach can take readers to places they might otherwise never understand. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind. We empathize with the character. (See The Love of a Writer.)

3. Direct stakes: I want this for myself.

Some plot situations throw out stakes directly to readers, such as saving a child in danger. Even if the character doesn’t fully want it, we do! The solving of a mystery can present its own stakes. That’s probably why mysteries can get away with such grouchy detectives. Another example of direct stakes is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with its deliberately unsympathetic and unreliable main characters. The mystery there is on the level of character. We care about the solution.

Stakes for the reader are an interaction of character and plot, sometimes more of one or the other. If the stakes are empathy-based, then it’s relatively more important that we care about the protagonist and want him or her to succeed. If the wants or needs are so universal that we can’t help but share them, then our sympathy can be weaker. A gauge to determine whether the stakes are working is the tension produced. How tense the stakes make us feel gives us a way to assess their strength.

In all these situations, the physical sensation of tension can act as the writer’s divining rod. Is your character impelled by a big enough want or need? Consider tension. Is your character’s resistance or fear strong enough to put that goal in doubt? Consider tension. Does your character need to be more sympathetic or, conversely, more unreliable? Consider tension. Are the stakes investing the action with real meaning? Consider tension.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Tension Begins with Character. Next month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.

Tension Begins with Character Tension Series Part 2

People often think of tension in fiction as arising mostly from plot. If we were to put any character in the circumstances facing Harry Potter, wouldn’t there be tension? Let’s say Hermione were the protagonist. We’d still be worried if she attempted to take on Lord Voldemort. Of course, he wouldn’t have killed her parents, so she’d lack Harry’s obsession. She might be more sensible and let others lead. The wizarding world wouldn’t be the only real home she’d ever known, so maybe she’d give up at some point and move back in with her parents. The fight is personal to Harry, and that’s where tension starts.

What a protagonist wants or needs brings stakes to the action. Stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot. Stakes mean that what happens matters. Tension mounts when wants or needs are obstructed (see Tension: The Secret to Storytelling) – the clash of oppositional forces, and not just in the plot, but on the level of character.

For the greatest tension, oppositional forces should be carried within the protagonist. The kind of characters who are out of balance inside. Whose survival systems are being exhausted, but who are still in resistance to change. Who are stuck in old patterns of behavior that are holding them back. Whose fears are blocking what they most desire or need.

Tension in character comes from these sorts of fundamental inner conflicts: resistance to change versus a need to change; fear versus desire. We get both the tension of the conflict and the tension of uncertainty. What will the character do?

As writers, we can increase this tension by pulling on both ends: making the want or need more significant and the inner resistance or fear even stronger. The outer setbacks and obstacles in the plot should give teeth to the conflict inside. The antagonist in the plot should be like a dark shadow cast by the protagonist’s flaws – the person he or she might become if he or she fails to change and grow. (More about plot will follow later in this series.)

Having our protagonists carry the potential for darkness makes them more credible and human. In any case, being a victim isn’t enough. If your protagonist is only in trouble from outside forces, you deny yourself the power of an interior arc of growth and change. You also risk compassion fatigue. But another reason is that inner conflict is a valuable source of tension. You want to use that. As you write, always try moving in the direction of tension to find your most compelling story.

Theme as a source of tension is closely related to character. The oppositional forces inside your protagonist should reflect the tensions in the theme. If you think of the central truth driving your fiction as being what at the deepest level you’re trying to say with your book, then your protagonist should begin in resistance to that truth. (See The Truth Behind Fiction.) Character is an embodiment of thematic tension.

In all these ways, the root of tension is character, no matter what type of fiction you’re writing. Character embodies the theme, drives the stakes, and carries the core tensions that will find their expression in plot. To orchestrate tension on the level of character, the most important thing is to stay aware of how your protagonist feels. This may sound simple, but it’s the hard work of sympathetic imagination. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) Try to internalize your protagonist’s deepest desires and fears to the point of actual physical sensation. To carry his or her core tensions in your gut. To sense what his or her reactions would to be everything that happens and make sure that gets reflected on the page. Not in a bald statement, but in how the characters speak, what they do, how they perceive things, and how they filter experience.

A strong protagonist is a story just waiting to happen. You’ll know you’ve found one by the tension he or she gives off.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Next month: Stakes and Sympathy.

Tension: The Secret to Storytelling Tension Series Part 1

Fiction is magical: that’s something I’ve always believed. When we read fiction, the real world falls away. The characters are made up and yet we care deeply about them. Their problems worry us to the point that we can’t bear to stop reading until they’re resolved. The insights gained in a story can lead to changes in our real lives. We don’t feel that way about a simple description of a character or a list of issues he or she faces or a collection of insights delivered as platitudes.

Tension is the secret: the storyteller’s deepest magic.

Tension is your story’s beating heart: the conflicted character, the crucial stakes, the daunting obstacles, the pressure of time, the risks that should never be taken, the mysteries that need to be solved. Tension refers to both the strain and the harmonic balance of opposing forces. It can be as subtle as the awkward silence between a husband and wife who are keeping secrets from each other. The existence of tension can transform the ordinary into the compelling.

I would go even further: tension is fundamental to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories.

Readers absorb tension – actually feel it on a visceral level – and carry it forward. Once they sense it, they listen hard to hear more. Readers are affected not only by the tension being experienced by the main character, but can also feel tension directly because of things of which the main character is unaware. When we talk about tension, we’re talking about both an effect that the writer creates on the page and a way that the reader feels in response to that effect.  Your ultimate goal is to generate tension in the reader. Tension in the reader sustains the channel of emotional engagement.

Imagine a scene in which a woman listens behind a door as cold air slips through a crack and brushes over her skin, raising hairs. Reading that, we can physically feel it, and share in the apprehension that comes with that sensation. Tension speaks to the deep places in our unconscious where we store emotional reactions and sensory data. Where we have an almost universal response. When tension works in a story, we feel it: we’re tense. And not only do we feel tension when we read it; we, as writers, should feel it when we write. The writer’s own experience of physical tension is the best indication that readers will feel it too. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.)

Once tension is established in a story, it reverberates under the surface, akin to the music carrying mood in a movie, with this distinguishing feature: we carry the music of tension in our guts. The writer is both the composer and the conductor. Tension arises from what you put in your story – the content – and from how you tell it. Even word choice makes a difference, sentence length, rhythms, the mesmerizing music of language. You can build tension up or quiet it down, blending the different sources like the music of instruments.

Orchestration gives us a way to think about tension that takes into account its complexity and importance, as well as its nonlinear aspects. Some tension builds in a progression, but other tension can come in from the side. A multiplicity of possible sources exists. Tension can and should come from character and plot, but that’s not all. Even the little things can contribute: how close your characters stand, whether they touch, how harsh the lights are. Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. Tension can augment tension. But some kinds of tension may undermine others; it’s not a complete free-for all.

As writers, we need to cultivate the ability to think on more than one plane. To experience our work as readers, at the same time as creating it as writers. To use our bodies as well as our brains. Orchestrating tension means being aware of the physical experience of tension – like a reader – at the same time as generating the effect of tension – like a writer. Tension is a place where the mind and body meet.

The magic, in short, is in you.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Next month: Tension Begins With Character.