Tension begins with character and stakes, but it is in plot that writers access the fullest orchestral dynamics of tension. Over the course of a story, we want to experience an overall mounting of tension, leading to a midpoint in which inward tension gives way to outward action, and finally culminating in a climax in which both the action and the core tensions are resolved. We read to see tension get resolved, whether for good or ill. The arc of story is an arc of rising tension and its ultimate resolution.
Your own physical sensation of tension is an invaluable tool for evaluating plot. You can tell if the tension mounts or flatlines by paying attention to the way you feel when you read your own work. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.)
The most significant tension in plot flows from the protagonist investing the action with stakes. Setbacks carry tension because we want so badly to get past them. Indifference would take tension away. For tension in plot, we’re looking for action that expresses and magnifies the oppositional forces at play in character and theme. (See Tension Begins with Character.)
To accomplish this, you want your protagonist to begin with traits in resistance to your central truth – to need the journey to get there. You want your plot to include circumstances that challenge that resistance until it breaks. In The Truth Behind Fiction, I mention Dara Marks and her excellent book, Inside Story. She cites John Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?”
The kind of obstacles we’re talking about won’t simply slow down our protagonist. They need both to block progress toward the character’s deepest desires/needs AND to work for interior change in the sense that they demand it if the most important goals are to be met.
A well-designed antagonist can help to accomplish this. If your antagonist reflects the darkest outcome of where your protagonist’s failings could lead, then his or her goals will inherently challenge the protagonist inside. Likewise, allies who reflect the thematic truth of your story and embody the goals of the plot can either clarify the stakes by modeling them or increase the stakes by being at risk.
In many novels, the plot is centered on solving, or failing to solve, a relationship. But even if you don’t have a relationship plot per se, the oppositional forces at play in your protagonist will be made manifest not only in the main plotline, but in the central relationship of the story. In other words, what’s holding them back inside needs to be conquered to progress a critical relationship, as well as to achieve the goals of the plot. Whether plot or subplot, the relationship conflict is where we most intimately see the cost of the protagonist’s fears and resistance to change. Those fears and resistance will impact the protagonist’s ability to connect. This is gold for writers! Relationships give us almost endless opportunities for tension.
Dara Marks depicts this interaction in the form of a triangle in Inside Story: (A) The problems in the outer world can only be solved if (B) there’s shift in consciousness inside the main character, and (C) that shift in consciousness occurs in relationship to someone hugely important to the main character. She uses the movie, Casablanca, to illustrate. Rick’s help is needed to help Laszlo escape (A), but that can only be achieved if Rick begins to care again about others (B), and for that, he must learn to love unconditionally through his relationship with Ilsa (C).
We can see how this all fits together in a novel using The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Amir, the privileged Sunni narrator, comes of age during the end of the monarchy in Afghanistan. His servant Hassan is the opposite of privileged; he’s also Shi’a and Hazara Mongoloid, the subject of ridicule in Amir’s culture. Amir holds him at arm’s length, while Hassan loves Amir completely. Amir’s attitude leads to his abandoning Hassan during the country’s revolution and invasion by Russian forces. Without the challenges of the plot, his attitude could simply continue; his insides might never change. But the Taliban takes over, massacres Hazaras, and kills Hassan and his wife, leaving their son abandoned – just as Amir abandoned Hassan. At the midpoint, Amir discovers that Hassan is his brother and that a Taliban official who buys children to rape has taken Hassan’s son. Amir is the only one who could save him. This antagonist isn’t simply privileged and callous like Amir: he’s focused and cruel. Amir must commit himself completely if the boy is to have a chance. In theory, we could have the Sunni vs Shi’a conflict of the plot without it being reflected inside – but there’d be less tension. As it is, we don’t know until near the end if Amir will summon up the courage to change.
Plot devices can act to increase tension, but they need to work with the larger forces of tension. If Amir got a hangnail, it might annoy him, but it wouldn’t augment the tension. But his being unable to find Hassan’s son – the combination of delay and uncertainty – magnifies the deeper tensions of character and plot. To search for what works, consider “how would this feel?” as well as “what if?” Consult your own senses for what would create the most tension.
Plot devices to consider include: suspense, time pressure, a ticking clock, delayed gratification, opportunities (be careful what you wish for), surprises, attraction, sexual tension, complications, setbacks, danger, threat, uncertainty, nagging worries, a character taking untoward risks, being misled, clashing agendas, the unpredictability of others, the desire to escape, a character facing a challenging journey, a quest, secrets, enigmas, and mysteries.
Mystery has a place in all kinds of writing, not just thrillers. There’s an aspect of mystery in every journey: the need to solve life. For example, in The Kite Runner, we have the mystery about what Amir will do and about whether he’ll manage to change inside, in addition to harrowing threats and a ticking clock.
And if with your particular characters, you think of anything that they’d especially fear or couldn’t handle, then you’ve got to consider throwing that at them to see how they’d react. If they don’t like tight places, then you have to put them in a tight place when their dealing with it matters. If they hate conflict, then it’s got to take conflict to get them where they need to go. You want to see what your characters are made of, to push them out farther, to strip away their defenses. To force them to become more than they were.
Plot is a crucible. It’s all about your main character needing to be brave. That can be harder than it sounds. We love our characters and may have to overcome an urge to protect them. Behind every hero’s journey is a brave writer’s journey. Heroism has everything to do with transcending limitations – not only our characters’, but our own.
My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Stakes and Sympathy. Next month: Tension Requires Release.