Tag Archives | tension

How to keep tension through the middle.

In my last post I talked about how the book DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth hooked me in the first ten chapters by taking advantage of the Debate. And how she used that to tie the internal conflict to the external conflict. This made me care. It added believability and dimension to the main character.

It’s called high stakes. The main character had to make a decision that mattered. Blake Snyder refers to it as primal. The decision was about family and survival. A universal motivation that any reader can relate to. And so the dystopian part of the novel faded and I was just reading about a girl making tough choices and dealing with the consequences.  #win

But after Act I, the conflict didn’t stop. The debate didn’t stop. The debate turned into part of her character arc and growth over the course of the novel. In other words, the opening directly affected the entire novel. It wasn’t a gimmick.

But I loved how each chapter continued to have high stakes. New situations cropped up that might not have been part of the main storyline but made me turn the pages pretty fast. It’s called subplots that work. Almost every chapter created a new tense situation for the character to deal with. And those situations directly affected the emotional arc of the main character.

And the midpoint introduced a major plot twist/mystery.

Keeping tension through the middle:

  • Create an opening that directly affects the entire novel.
  • Make sure the main character’s motivations are primal.
  • If you can, continue the debate into Act II.
  • The main character should make tough choices and deal with the consequences.
  • Have a well-developed character arc.
  • Create subplots where the main character must make choices.
  • Create subplots that affect the main storyline.
  • Create a midpoint that changes the story. Reveal something big.

Yes I created this list based on a best-seller commercial book. But the successful character driven more literary books I’ve read and analyzed contain all these elements too, on a scale that fit the story.

This is what I love to read and write.

What do you love to read and write? Tell me. Study those books and create your own lists for what works and apply them to your writing.

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How to create a page turner in your opening chapters.

Scroll down for the link to part 2.

I love seeing what books rise to the top of my to-be-read pile. This past weekend I read DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth. I turned pages so fast I could feel a breeze on my face. And I learned some practical applications for my own wip.  #nospoilers  #Ipromise

The way the external and internal conflict played off each other was incredible. And I grasped how powerful the Debate section can be in hooking your reader.

In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder talks about the Debate section. During the opening, the hero is faced with a question or choice. She/he knows the answer but really shouldn’t make that final decision to go on the quest until the end of Act I. So a big part of Act I is this debate – the main character figuring out what they should do.

In DIVERGENT, Beatrice belongs to the Abnegation faction in a dystopian world. When teens turn sixteen they take an aptitude test and attend a choosing ceremony. If they choose a different faction, they leave their family. Forever. #immediateconflict

From chapter one, Beatrice is not sure what to do. She has always felt she doesn’t fully belong in her faction. And then, during her aptitude test, something goes wrong, and she is left with no clear path. She must decide.

All the way through Act I, in every single chapter, every event that happens, every choice she has to make – the internal conflict is ramped. As it should be. She debates her decision before and after she makes it.

So, how can you increase conflict in Act I?

This is what I wrote in the top of a notebook while reading DIVERGENT.

Every outer event should cause the main character to question her very beliefs and who she is in order to expose her flaws, increase conflict, and develop reader empathy.

Seriously. Go read the book. And feel the tension on every page.

Read part 2 – How to keep tension through the middle.

How do you create tension in the opening chapters?

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Just add a spider.


Adding a spider to your shower is an extremely effective way to learn about adding tension. (Okay, so it wasn’t a tarantula or a Black Widow, but that’s beside the point. Really.)

As writers we know about adding conflict to our stories. But what about micro tension? That moment to moment suspense that makes a reader want to turn the page. We all want it. Here’s what I learned.

Put something in the scene that your character isn’t aware of at first  – let’s say a spider.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say your character is taking a shower – a simple mundane act that we usually don’t include in our stories. (I’m thinking about all the scary scenes from movies that take place in showers.) It could be any scene. But if it is a shower, make it a small stand-up shower without a lot of wiggle room.

In this scene, your character is naive, happy, going about her business. The story is moving forward.

Next, your character becomes aware of the spider.

And here is where the tension starts to rise. Even though the spider isn’t moving and is minding his own business, show the physical response in your character- like panic. Your character continues on in the scene, but is fully aware of the spider.

Then, the spider moves all eight of its legs, stretching, reaching. (Probably annoyed at the water splattering him.)

The original problem just became worse. The tension increases. Your character will find it extremely hard to continue what she was doing, but perseveres, hoping that the spider is just stretching before settling down for a long winter’s nap. Right.

Worse yet, the spider starts to move across its web.

Now, the character has lost all motivation in her original mundane act of showering. She is paralyzed, her eyes riveted on the arachnid, hoping he’s just repositioning.

But we can always make it worse for our main character. Right?

Now, the spider leaves its web and crawls down the side of the shower. This is the final act of terror that causes the main character to fumble with the shower door, open it, and grab for the tissues. And as your main character’s heart rate increases, so will your reader’s.

But no solution comes quick and easy.

Now the focus of your scene has switched from the mundane act to a highly stressful situation, fully focused on the main character’s predicament. She attempts to kill the spider in a single, quick act of violence (much against her character).  But the spider drops to the floor, its legs wiggling. The main character screams and jumps out of the shower.  Then she proceeds to take care of the problem with a lump of soggy tissues.

One last step. Show the recovery.

Your main character is shaken up, trembling.  After a few deep breaths, she resumes with her mundane act of showering. She is no longer naive and happy but totally creeped out.

So, there you have it. Just as tension rises from scene to scene, the smaller tension within a scene should rise to. And if you’re not sure how to add that micro tension – just add a spider. (Trust me, you’ll get the message loud and clear.)

How do you keep tension on every page, every paragraph, every line? I’d love to hear.

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