My friend Becca Puglisi is here today with a fab post about how to use conflict and tension effectively. Enjoy!
One of my favorite Aha moments as a writer came in the form of feedback from a critiquer. (Shout out to all the critique partners!) She kept writing notes in my manuscript, like Where’s the tension? and This would be a good spot to add some tension.
No tension? What’s she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family business is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there’s no tension??
After chewing on this for a while, I realized that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t necessarily the same.
Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines conflict like this: a character enters a scene with a goal, and standing in the way is an obstacle. That’s conflict. Maybe it’s a confrontation with an adversary, a downed tree that blocks the character’s path, the alarm not going off on the morning of an important meeting, or a temptation that triggers an internal struggle.
Conflict is whatever makes it harder for the character to achieve their goal. It’s a vital part of creating empathy in the reader as they wonder if the hero is up to the challenge.
Tension in literature is an emotional response from the reader, and conflict is one of the things that elicits it. Think of it in terms of real-life tension—that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that puts you on edge. Where conflict occurs, the character should be feeling some of that tension. If the reader feels it too, an emotional bond is forged that puts the reader more firmly in the character’s corner, rooting for them and turning pages to see if they succeed.
When conflict is done right, it should result in tension. But it doesn’t—not all the time, as my critique partner kindly pointed out. So how do we write stories that are chock full of tension? Here are four tips for making that happen.
Include Conflict in Every Scene. In each scene, your character should have a goal. If they get what they want without any opposition, where’s the fun (or tension) in that? Too many pages without conflict will result in a story that drags and readers who start wondering what’s in the fridge.
So for each scene, know what your character’s after, then add whatever will make it more difficult for them to achieve their goal. The conflict can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or quiet (the character wanting something that’s bad for them), but make sure it’s there. For ideas on possible conflict scenarios, take a look at this database at One Stop for Writers.
Employ a Variety of Conflict Scenarios. Think over the past day and take a quick inventory of all the difficulties you encountered. The list is going to be impressive (and maybe a little overwhelming). It’s going to include not only conflict of varying intensity, but scenarios that touch on different areas of life. The same should be true for our characters. Your spy protagonist is going to have lots of work-related conflict, but they’re also going to encounter relationship friction, moral temptations, power struggles, ticking clock situations, etc. Well-rounded characters should experience conflict in all areas of life. Maintain authenticity (and make things super difficult for them) by varying the conflict scenarios in your story.
Add Some Internal Conflict. While there always will be external forces working against your character, any protagonist traversing a change or failed character arc is going to struggle internally. As the story goes along, they’ll face difficulties that highlight a weakness, challenge a dysfunctional coping mechanism or flawed ideology, and push them to make the changes that will allow them to succeed. The only way they can reach that critical tipping point of meaningful change is if they struggle with their inner demons.
It’s Sarah Connor doubting her ability to become “the mother of the future.”
It’s Jason Bourne slowly realizing who he is, not knowing if he can live with the knowledge, and being unsure how to move forward.
It’s John Anderton—cop and neuroin addict—wrestling with the knowledge that the Pre-Crime program he’s devoted his career to may be flawed and even immoral.
Internal conflict is compelling to readers because they’ve been there—wrestling with questions about morality, right and wrong, identity, and a host of other things. They also know what’s at stake for the character should they fail to emerge from those internal struggles with a healthier approach to life.
Make Sure the Stakes are High Enough. We know that conflict doesn’t always result in tension, which means it won’t automatically engage readers. For readers to be unsettled and a little nervous about your character’s future, something significant needs to be at stake: a cost incurred if the protagonist fails to navigate the situation successfully.
So when you’re thinking of the consequences of failure, think in terms of stakes. Each conflict scenario needs a serious or else attached to it. To identify stakes that will greatly impact the character, consider the following:
Far-Reaching Stakes: those that may result in loss for many people if the protagonist fails.
Moral Stakes: those that threaten the character’s most foundational ideals and beliefs.
Primal (Death) Stakes: those involving the loss of something major, such as innocence, a relationship, a career, dream, idea, belief, reputation, or a physical life.
Stakes—even the far-reaching ones—should touch your character on some level. This gives them skin in the game by making things personal and endangering something or someone important. When the reader sees just how high the stakes are, their empathy for the character will grow, and they’ll be more engaged in the story.
We try to avoid tension in real life, but in our books? It’s absolutely vital for holding the reader’s interest. Create and maintain tension by carefully considering the conflicts in your story. Include opposition in every scene, vary the kinds of conflict your character experiences, add some internal struggles, and ensure that the stakes are impactful and you’re sure to raise your character’s blood pressure while keeping readers engaged.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers.
Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.
Tiny Creatures is a new docuseries on Netflix that’s adorable, suspenseful, and masterfully plotted and paced. To check it out I skipped ahead to Episode 6, which features a raven and a rat. And the storytelling craft blew me away. This episode, along with all the others in the series, provide a detailed roadmap driven by obstacles, misdirection, and conflict. Let’s pull back the curtain and peek behind the scenes.
Even with the “Spoiler Alerts” I still recommend watching the episode. I’ve only concentrated on a few areas of craft, and I don’t point out every instance of where it occurs. The full post still landed at 4564 words. Hence why I’ve broken the post into two parts. See what can happen when you’re high on craft? 😉
Before we get to the deconstruction, check out the trailer.
Deconstruction Part I
“Florida, home to the Everglades. A wild expanse of almost two million acres of wetlands.” (We know where we are, but there’s also a hint of mystery and intrigue. What creatures lurk in the Everglades? And that, is the Central Dramatic Story Question—the cornerstone question at the heart of every story that directly relates to the hero’s conflict. Boom! The writer raised the most important question in the first two lines of the script. Notice s/he never outright poses the question. Rather, s/he implants it in the viewer’s mind.) “Isolated among the Everglades stands a fishing shack, the backdrop of two very different animals whose stories are destined to cross.” (There’s the hook. We need to continue to find out where this leads.)
In flies an impressive raven. (Is he our villain or hero? We’ll keep watching to find out.)
“A raven, a sleek bird with glossy black feathers. Behind this polished appearance, the raven possesses intellect as well as beauty.” The camera zooms in on his size and power (hints that he must be the bad guy). “Lately, the raven’s been keeping an eye on this fishing shack, tracking the movements of the human owner, their habits and routine. He knows when the coast will be clear.”
The raven struts into the fishing shack.
“Ravens are quirky characters and this one is keen to explore. (quirky = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character) His eyesight, however, isn’t as sharp as his mind (character flaw). He can’t see well in the dark. (obstacle) But this bird is a problem-solver and he has the perfect solution.”
The raven tugs on the wooden knob of the shade, and the shade rolls up. Cascading sunlight bathes the fishing shack in brightness.
“As smart as a chimpanzee, ravens frequently use their brains to exploit the riches of others. Especially humans. (Notice the word choices; the harsh “exploit” and staccato “especially humans” indicates he’s the villain) And this person has many treasures hidden away, safely out of reach.”
The raven flies over to a tackle box.
“But for the raven this is a test of his wits.” (Tension builds) Raven struggles to break into the tackle box (conflict). “And he does what ravens do best—he improvises.” (problem-solver = psychological trait stemming from past experience, upbringing, emotional scars, memories, etc. = 2nd Dimension of Character. We’re beginning to better understand the raven.)
Using a hook-shaped tool, the raven breaks into the tackle box to get at some sort of bait scattered across the bottom of the middle drawer. Clearly, the raven is burglarizing this shack to suit he needs. (Burglar = antagonist. Or could he be an anti-hero? We’re still not sure, which forces us to keep watching.)
Camera pans out to the Everglades and the narrator offers more details about the area. “The water is also home to an assortment of wildlife. Unlike the raven, some animals strive for a simple existence.” (A sprinkle of backstory. More importantly, this is the setup to introduce our tiny hero).
Enter stage left: an adorable rat doggy paddles across the water. (cuteness = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character)
(Side note: If you’re not a lover of rats, I get it. I wasn’t either. But by the end of this story, you will fall in love with this little rat.And that, ladies and gents, is what characterization is all about.)
“After a busy night exploring, this drowned rat is traveling home to rest (relatable + we empathize with our tiny hero). Each night she swims from bank to bank to see what she can forage. Just like humans, not all rats are natural swimmers (our hero has a superpower). Those rats who have mastered the art can swim over a mile in one go. With her small frame and streamlined body, she’s a natural, moving effortlessly through the water.” (What other superpowers might she possess? Curiosity and empathy keeps us watching.)
Our tiny hero reaches a drainpipe and climbs inside.
“This is a familiar and safe route. Not many predators can follow her through these narrow tunnels. It was her swimming agility which brought her to this hidden route to her home.” (backstory dribbled in to drive the plot) Our tiny hero crawls farther through the drainpipe. “A light at the end of the tunnel signifies her final hurdle.” <cue dramatic music> She plunges into a U-shaped drain (tension builds). “One that relies on her ability to hold her breath and stay submerged for up to three minutes.” (determination = psychological trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) “A rather unconventional way of entering her home in the fishing shack.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)
Up pops our tiny hero from the toilet.
“Now soaked to the bone, she carries an extra 5% of her body weight in water. If her fur stays wet for too long, she’s at risk for hyperthermia. (more conflict + character flaw) Using the equivalent of nature’s hairdryer to dry off, she adopts an alternative approach.”
<cue dramatic music and slow-motion camera> Our tiny hero twists and shakes her body 18 times per second, loose water spraying in all directions.
“It’s an efficient if not slightly messy approach. Within just four seconds, she’s removed 70% of the water droplets.” She climbs down off the toilet seat and into the main room of the fishing shack. “Unbeknown to the rat, however, there’s a trespasser inside her home.” (First hint of trouble.) <cue dangerous music as the camera narrows on the raven> “And the normal serenity of the shack is swiftly broken.” (Inciting Incident)
Wings outstretched, the raven squawks.
“The presence of the rat irritates the raven. He could easily kill this rodent. But he has other ideas.” (Because we’ve bonded with our hero — the under-rat, if you will — we fear for her safety. There’s no way we’ll stop watching.) Loud screeches from the raven combined with a penetrating glare startle our tiny hero. “Ravens are one of the few bird species that like to play. And the rat is the unfortunate victim of its game . . . and her tale is a tempting target.”
Raven swan-dives off a nearby table—straight at our hero. The chase is on! (1st Plot Point lands at 20-25% — perfect)
<dramatic music enhances the terror> “Fleeing this terrifying predator, the rat seeks sanctuary where she can.” Each time the raven misses our hero by mere millimeters. Camera closes in on the raven’s opened beak, massive black wings, and powerful physique. “This game is a little one-sided.” (And now, we’re certain Raven is the formidable villain.)
Our tiny hero scampers into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. “The raven uses its sharp beak to poke and probe.” (Notice the hard-sounding word choices “poke” & “probe” which only solidifies our theory about the raven) Raven leaps on top of the box, tears at the old packing tape. (Stakes are raised. If our hero doesn’t escape, she could die!)
“But the rat’s size and agility gives her the edge into some unusual terrain. She ceases her opportunity and makes a dash for it. She squeezes through a one-inch gap, leaving the raven still pecking.”
When our tiny hero races across the floor, Raven is right on her heels. But in the mad dash he knocks over a bottle. Liquid leaks out its spout (foreshadows danger + setup of climax).
“Distracted by the chase, the raven loses track of time.”
Outside the shack, a boat docks at the pier. “The fisherman arrives back at the shack, seeking shelter from the midday sun. But for some, the heat of the sun’s rays are welcome to warm, cold blood.” A menacing-looking iguana sunbathes atop a large rock on the porch, and we learn more about him, including his voracious appetite. (This spattering of backstory raises the stakes even higher while conjuring more story questions: Will our hero need to fight the iguana, too?)
Camera cuts back to the raven whose sharp talons pin down a burlap sack. Underneath, our tiny hero struggles to break free.
“The fisherman returns from a long but successful day on the water.” He unloads his gear and clomps toward the front door. “He is unaware of the raven’s game that is still taking place in the shack.”
Cameras cuts back to inside, where our hero whimpers as she tries to flee from the massive raven. (Conflict, tension, action, and rising stakes, combined with rotating motivation/reaction units, along with solid characterization and story questions—questions that must be answered—and the viewer’s breathless with anticipation. We cannot look away.)
“The noise of the fisherman alerts the raven. Realizing the human has returned, the game with the rat is no longer of interest to him”—he soars toward the window— “as the raven spots a more appealing opportunity outside.”
Camera zooms in on bait in a three-gallon bucket.
“Luckily, the pause in the chase allows the rat to escape to her bed.” Our tiny hero careens into an old boot (allowing viewers a moment to catch their breath = smart pacing).
“For the raven, it seems there are bigger fish to fry.”
Camera captures the raven lickin’ his chops as he stares out the window at the bucket (menacing appearance = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character). Raven climbs out the window and stalks the ledge to the front corner of the fishing shack. When the fisherman enters the shack, he seizes the opportunity to raid the bait.
While we watch the raven feast, the narrator offers us a few more fascinating details. “With no teeth, the raven pecks at the food, swallowing whole the more manageable pieces.” (These tidbits allow us to better understand the raven, and to envision what he might do to our sweet hero.)
Little Miss Rat emerges from the boot. The camera flashes outside to the iguana, increasing the tension of the scene. Our tiny hero could be up against two villains! (raises the stakes even higher)
“Capable of smelling food from a mile away, the scent of fish entices the rat to leave her hiding place. Similar to ravens, rats are not choosy to what they eat (similar character flaws). There’s more than enough food here for both of them.”
Our innocent hero totters up to the bait bucket. Glowering, Raven towers the rat, his talons latched onto the rim.
“Though still leery of the raven, she hopes this distraction will allow her to break cover and grab a quick bite, unnoticed. But the beady-eyed raven hasn’t learned the art of sharing.”
Raven squawks (motivation), which wakes the sleeping iguana (reaction). Our tiny hero runs and hides, leaving the two bad guys to square off. (tension mounts)
“Woken by the commotion from the raven, this sensitive lizard doesn’t hesitate. Its instinctive reaction is to run.” But when the iguana charges (motivation), the raven leaps off the bucket (reaction) and the bait splatters across the porch. The iguana escapes into the surrounding landscape. “In a flash, it’s gone.”
But the fisherman hears the crash from inside and peers out the window. Raven makes a mad dash to gobble up as much bait as he can swallow.
The narrator hits us with this as a clever misdirect: “Ravens can learn to either like or dislike a person, depending on how they’re treated. And they never forget a face.”
Da, nah, nah. <cue dangerous music>
The fisherman storms outside with a broom. (Now it looks like the human might be the real antagonist of the story. Is the raven an anti-hero? But if that’s true, then why does he keep tormenting an innocent rat? Raising story questions forces us to keep watching.)
Broom in hand, the fisherman chases the raven across the porch, screaming and yelling, and we watch this play out in silhouette through the window (1st Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 37.5%).
With the raven gone, our tiny hero can finally rest. <cue sweet music>
“Both the rat and the raven are blissfully unaware of the danger being constructed outside (This line subtly signals that they are, in fact, dual protagonists). Humans also hold grudges. And the raven’s actions have consequences.” (The fisherman sure looks like the real villain now, doesn’t he? Just when one answer is revealed, the writer raises another story question. How will the human punish the raven?)
On the porch sits a wired trap baited with fish. Our tiny hero is sleeping soundly in her boot when she’s awakened by the raven screeching outside.
“Trapped and outsmarted by the fisherman, the raven calls for help.” Poor Raven is caught in the trap (gaining empathy for our anti-hero).
The camera pans over to our sweet rat emerging from the safety of her bed.
“A social animal, the rat can sense the raven’s distress. Unnerved by the calls for help, her instinct draws her to the raven. (instinct = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) Arriving to see the trapped bird, a sense of empathy washes over the rat. (compassion = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) She approaches cautiously. She has not forgotten the raven’s torment yesterday.”
The raven and the rat gaze into each other’s eyes (this Mirror Moment bonds the two heroes).
Camera closes in on our tiny hero’s sweet face. “Her sense of compassion overrides her concern.” In a bold move, she climbs up on the door of the trap and gnaws on the rope securing the top of the door to the metal bars (the act of facing her fears = 3rd Dimension of character, her true character). “Equipped with super strong teeth, rats are capable of chewing through concrete, glass, and even metal. Although not quite as a clever as the raven, rats are super smart. (yes, the repetition is a writing tic, but it’s invisible to the viewer due to the high tension & action. See what good plotting and three-dimensional characters can mask?) Unsure of when the fisherman will return, the rat works as quickly as she can to gnaw through the rope.”
The rope falls to the deck boards and our tiny hero drags open the door, freeing the raven. <cue dramatic music> (Midpoint Shift, perfectly placed at 50%.)
Raven cocks his head and stares at the rat. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky. (story question: will they meet again?)
The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn the rat to get out of sight (his actions/behavior = 3rd Dimension of Character, his true character). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.
As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + more story questions. Will our heroes soon face this beast?)
Of special note for Part I: Through characterization, did you notice how the writer periodically forced the viewer (reader) to change their perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we’ve encountered so far? Storytelling at its finest, folks.
When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:
Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.
The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.
Lord of the Rings
Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)
Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.
It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.
Today’s post is brought to you by Conflict & Suspense, two things every novel needs. Yes, every, no matter the genre.
I’m not just talking about plot here, but characterization, too. It’s this latter aspect that some writers fail to take full advantage of. To illustrate, let me talk about one of my favorite movies of all time.
12 Angry Menis the 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Reginald Rose (based on his play). The plot is disarmingly simple. Twelve jurors deliberate in a capital murder case. The entire drama, save for a short prologue, takes place inside the jury room.
At first, the verdict seems like a done deal. All the early chatter is about how guilty the defendant is (he’s a slum kid, accused of stabbing his father). One of the jurors (Jack Warden) has tickets to the ballgame and would love to get out early. Others don’t see the point in spending a great deal of time actually deliberating.
They take an initial vote. And only one juror, Number 8 (Henry Fonda), votes Not Guilty. Everybody else grumbles.
And for the next hour and a half, we sit in on the deliberations.
The movie violates all the currently fashionable, postmodern, ADHD stylistic conventions. No quick cuts or explosions or overbearing music. It’s all talk. It’s even in black and white, for crying out loud!
Yet, no matter where I happen to come in on the film when it’s on TV, if I start to watch I have to finish.
Why? Because inter-character conflict works its magic. What Rose did was bring together twelve distinct characters, each with their own background, baggage and personality, and throw them into what is essentially a great, big argument.
Therein lies the real untapped secret of creating conflict: orchestration. That means you cast your characters so they have the potential of conflict with every other character.
In 12 Angry Men, for example, there’s a Madison Avenue ad man (Robert Webber) who spouts bromides and tosses out suggestions, just like he would at a brainstorming meeting at the office. “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.” He’s amiable, easy with a laugh. But he never makes a final decision. He vacillates. Finally another juror (Lee J. Cobb) gets fed up. “The boy in the gray flannel suit here is bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball!”
There’s a mousy bank clerk (John Fiedler) who automatically draws satirical comment from the macho salesman (Warden). There’s a coldly rational stockbroker (E. G. Marshall) who arrogantly dismisses all reasonable doubt, until backed into a corner by Fonda. There’s a young man who grew up in the slums (Jack Klugman) who, at one point, turns to E. G. Marshall and asks, “Pardon me, don’t you sweat?”
“No, I don’t,” Marshall says. There is nothing more to that exchange, but the line is memorable because of Rose’s superb orchestration, knowing the personalities and quirks of all his characters.
Then there’s the bigot (Ed Begley) who in one unforgettable moment alienates everyoneelse on the jury.
But it is, finally, the main conflict between Cobb and Fonda that is the focus of the drama. Cobb wants to get this kid executed (for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear at the end). Fonda wants to give the kid his due under the Constitution––the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
And that’s another lesson about conflict: the stakes. They have to be high. In fact, I hold that death must be on the line. Not just physical death, mind you. There is also professional and psychological death. Unless you have one of these overhanging, your story is not going to be as gripping as it should be.
In 12 Angry Men, physical death is on the line for the kid, but more importantly it’s a matter of psychological death for each of the jurors. After all, they could be sending an innocent man to the chair. In addition, each of them has some inner baggage to deal with. Like the old man ignored by his family (Joseph Sweeney), and the newly naturalized citizen trying to make it in America (George Voskovec).
Orchestration for conflict is essential in any genre, including comedy. Especiallycomedy. Think of, say, City Slickers.You have three friends from the city going on a cattle drive out west. They are very different from each other – one is a joker, one is macho, one is just a loser. Then they come in contact with someone who is unlike any of them – Curly, the ramrod. The comedy flows naturally out of the conflict between the different personalities.
So as you’re getting ready to write, you would do well to create a chart of all your important characters, a grid like the one produced below (taken from my article “Vitamin C For Your Thriller” in the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest):
Then figure out points of conflict between the characters, as in this example:
You will be pleased and amazed at all the natural plot tension, subtext and foreshadowing that will emerge from this simple exercise.
Trouble is your business, writer friend. Go make some.
What are some of your favorite ways to increase conflict, tension and suspense in your work?
It’s my turn to post the first page of a work and offer my opinion—of which, I will stress is merely that. One of my fantasies about reading new, anonymous work is that I would come to discover that I critiqued the next block-busting novelist. Could this one be he/she?
When Noa Torson woke up, the first thing she noticed was that her feet were cold. Odd, since she always wore socks to bed. It was bright, too—and she hated sleeping in a bright room, had even installed blackout curtains over her apartment’s sole window so that morning light never penetrated the gloom. She squinted against the glare, trying to make sense of her surroundings as her eyes adjusted. Her head felt like it had been inflated a few sizes and stuffed with felt. She had no idea how she’d ended up here, wherever here was.
Was she back in juvie? Probably not, it was too quiet. Juvie always sounded like a carnival midway, the constant din of guards’ boots pounding against metal staircases, high-pitched posturing chatter, the squeak of cots and clanking of metal doors. Noa had spent enough time there to be able to identify it with her eyes closed. She could usually even tell which cell block she’d been dumped in by echoes alone.
Voices intruded on the perimeter of her consciousness—two people from the sound of it, speaking quietly. She tried to sit up, and that was when the pain hit. Noa winced. It felt like her chest had been split in half. Her hand ached, too. Slowly, she turned her head. An IV drip, taped to her right wrist. The line led to a bag hanging from a metal stand. And the bed she was lying on was cold metal—an operating table, a spotlight suspended above it. So was she in a hospital? There wasn’t that hospital smell, though, blood and sweat and vomit battling against the stench of ammonia.
Noa lifted her left hand: her jade bracelet, the one she never took off, was gone. That realization snatched the final cobwebs from her mind.
Cautiously, Noa raised up on her elbows, then frowned. This wasn’t like any hospital she’d ever seen. She was in the center of a glass chamber, a twelve-by-twelve foot box, the windows frosted so she couldn’t see out. The floor was bare concrete. Aside from the operating table and the IV stand, rolling trays of medical implements and machines were scattered about like an archipelago of islands marooned in a grey sea. In the corner stood a red trash bin, “MEDICAL WASTE” blaring from the lid.
Wow. Now that’s a nightmare to which I NEVER want to awaken. Am I hooked? Hell, yeah! This catapults “The Perils of Pauline” to the stratosphere–and, she’s not even tied down.
First off, the first three paragraphs delivered so much information so incredibly (what seems) effortlessly, while ratcheting up the tension, that this writer is no amateur. We learn Noa is tough, opinionated, world-weary and intelligent. Noa gives us insight into a world (Juvie) with so much detail, that you can taste the coppery resentment she holds against society. And now, as if she hasn’t been “processed” enough through life, she is stretched out on an operating table for the final dissection.
Is she in danger, or was she hurt and being aided? Holy smokes. I WANNA KNOW!
A poet at heart, I’m hugely into symbolism. This page is loaded with it. For example:
1. The “sole” window apartment and sleeping in the “gloom”—As if living in a rabbit hole, Noa has seen enough. When she’s most vulnerable she wants safety from the world.
2. Her jade bracelet missing –Jade symbolizes justice, renewal, contentment and courage. She never took it off. It’s gone. Now she has to go it alone.
3. A 12 by 12 frosted glass box and concrete floor—a reflection of her view of the world: cold, confusing, hard, unwelcome.
4. Two people whispering –nothing is ever clear. She always has to be on guard.
5. The Medical Waste trash bin –Is that what her life has been reduced to?
Next, every action verb (installed, pounded, dumped, scattered, split, battling), every description (blackout, clanking, squeaking, metal, cold) was perfectly chosen to create mood and move the plot forward. Not a feat for the unfocused writer. This author knows exactly what she/he is doing with word choice to make the reader empathize and act with the character.
Now, I know when given the chance to read on, I will learn her age (though I suspect she’s either still a juvie or a recent graduate), occupation, where she lives, why her bracelet is so important, why her chest hurts and what she was doing before awakening on this Table. But, let me point out, this page was so expertly crafted with concrete (not vague) impressions in this woman’s mind, that these questions created a need to know more; hence, a page turner.
After last week’s mini-discussion about character-driven versus plot-driven novels (and the difficulty involved in distinguishing one from t’other) I started thinking about what really gets me hooked in a good book. Sure I like characters that I can care about and plots that keep me turning the page, but what I most often find keeps me glued to the page is the evolving relationships in a book.
I admit, I’m a hopeless romantic, but when I speak of relationships I don’t necessarily mean the lovey-dovey kind. For me, I want to see the sparks fly on all kinds of levels – because (as far as I’m concerned) it’s conflict and thwarted objectives that make relationships between characters come to life. I just finished a very light regency era mystery/romance which disappointed on the relationship level precisely because the conflict was never really evident between the two main protagonists (that and the fact that I had to wade through pages and pages of the most ‘awesome sex ever’ escapades which defied belief). This got me thinking about what I look for in a novel when it comes to the critical relationships in the story.
One of the key relationships we often look for in a good thriller is between the antagonist and the protagonist – whether it’s a serial killer and an FBI agent or a police officer and his suspect, I want to become invested in a real ‘cat and mouse game’. I want to see a relationship develop between these two opposites that intrigues as well as satisfied. If only one of these characters is sufficiently interesting to hold my attention then no matter how much this character might drive the plot, I will probably still feel let down.
Of course, many times I am looking for a good romance to develop alongside the mystery, and this is where (in my humble opinion) many mysteries and thrillers fall down. The relationship is either way too obvious and heavy-handed or so underplayed as to be totally underwhelming. I want chemistry (!) and both the promise of a romantic relationship as well as the seeds of doubt. In a mystery series the evolution of key relationships are often the most enjoyable things to watch – though as ever writer knows, once those relationships become ‘consummated’ all too often the fizz and the thrill of it all can die.
So what do you look for in terms of relationships in a thriller or a mystery? Are you like me hooked by relationships in a story? Do you enjoy seeing these evolve over a series or do you to see character relationships as ‘second fiddle’ as long as there’s a ripping yarn to be told?
In a recent writer’s forum, the question was asked: What is the most important element in a story? Plot, character development, pacing, voice, etc. Of course, they’re all important. But in my opinion, there’s one element that will always get an agent or editor’s attention in a query letter. It’s the one thing that that must be in your book to make the story work? I think it’s the secret to writing a page-turning thriller.
Conflict deals with how your characters must act and react to reach their goals.
It’s the key ingredient that turns a stranger into a fan or causes an agent to request your full manuscript or an editor to drop everything and read your submission: a clear understanding and statement of conflict.
Is your hero in a race against the clock to solve the puzzle and find the treasure before all hell breaks loose? Is your heroine on the run to prove her innocence before the police track her down? That’s the plot. But what makes it interesting and compelling is what stands in their way. What’s tripping them up, causing them to falter or doubt or take a detour?
Conflict makes a thriller more thrilling. It’s the single element that keeps readers up at night. It forces the reader to continue to ask, “How is he going to get out of this one?”
There are two kinds of conflict—external and internal.
External Conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force. The external conflict can be from another character or even a force of nature such as battling the elements—a hurricane or the extreme cold of the Arctic. External conflict usually takes place between the hero and another person or nature, or both.
Internal conflict is a struggle taking place in the hero’s mind. Mental conflict can be much more devastating that external because your character usually has to decide between right and wrong or between life and death. Internal conflict is the hero battling against himself.
Conflict causes the excitement to build to a climax, and the climax is the turning point of the story leading to a resolution. Without conflict, a story lacks life, energy and drive.
How do you approach conflict? Do you insert it into each scene? Do you use internal or external, or a combination of both? Have you ever read a story that didn’t have conflict? Was it worth reading?