Story Tension

Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

 

Story tension arises from barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups.

This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs.

Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

 

Drop your characters in uncomfortable situations. Think of the worst thing that could occur to them and make it happen. Your characters might hate you, but  your stories will be better for it.

Remember, tension is an antidote to boredom.

7 Ways to Increase Story Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.
2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.
3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.
4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.
5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.
6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.
7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, a retired theoretical physicist, has made a decision years preciously that changed his life forever. His thoughts and actions in the present continue to be impacted by that decision. The result is that he is unable to move on with his life until he can forgive himself for the consequences flowing from that decision.

Summary

Story tension hooks the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the seven techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.

Young Adults Want This in a Story

Young AdulthoodAlthough young adults may share some of the themes associated with the teen years, such as the search for love and intimacy and discovering one’s identity, this thematic category digs deeper than the former – explored in last week’s post. It tends to focus more on achievement and efficacy in the world. It not only establishes the theme as a protagonist’s goal, it scratches for the truth that lies below the surface.

Stories, such as Titanic and Elizabeth, for example, respectively explore the consequences of choosing someone to love that our parents would disapprove of, or choosing duty over love.

Young Adulthood and Story Themes – Linda Seger

Because many popular stories and films tend to cater for readers and audiences in their twenties and thirties their themes center more on success and achievement – strong driving forces in that age group.

Themes about success focus on achieving success in the world’s eyes – about public achievement. If the protagonist fails to have her dream acknowledged in the public arena it may be that the dream is unimportant or insignificant. Important achievements, by contrast, carry the stamp of public approval: John Nash wins the Nobel Prize in A Beautiful Mind, the first Star Wars ends with a ceremony, and Clarice receives an award at the end of Silence of the Lambs.

Stories in the category, can, however, be more inwardly-looking, exploring the conflict between career and family (Melvin’s Room, One True Thing), or the tension between fame, materialism and integrity – Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Quiz Show. Here the storyline tends to explore the outer goal while the inner story, driven by a more intimate exploration of the theme, examines the inner world through subplot.

Regardless of the level of intimacy, however, stories that fall in the young adulthood category focus more on the consequences of pursuing success or fame through career, its rewards and costs, rather than discovering the themes as goals in the first instance – the first order search in teenage stories.

The young adulthood category, then, represents a maturing of the teenage dream into an ostensible set of goals that have public and personal effects.

Summary

Stories involving characters in the young adulthood category tend to explore the consequences, good and bad, of pursuing career, success, and fame.

Thank You, Mr. Field.

Syd Field
Syd Field (1935 – 2013)
Every once in a while I come across a nay-sayer – a writer who believes that the study of writing as a craft, and the study of structure in particular, is anathema.

Such writers believe that greatness springs ready-formed from the inspired brain – that great writing, somehow, is handed down to us, preconceived and complete, like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

But even if it were true that genius does not require training and a writing methodology, where would that leave the majority of us typing away on our keyboards in the dark?

When I first started writing I knew little about structure other than the old Aristotelean advise that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end. My efforts were guided mainly by the aggregated jumble of books I’d read and films I’d seen.

I was not short on starts. Images, sounds, ideas came to me in a bewildering stream of disjointed segments, but like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle taken from different boxes, they did not fit together in any coherent way.

Writing a story back then was a hit-and-miss affair. It was a sweaty, messy, grinding struggle that sometimes produced good passages. Mostly, however, the writing was bad enough to convince me not to give up my day job.

None of these passages survived.

It was only when I came across Syd Field’s, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, that the light finally flicked on. Here was a book that laid out the structure of a story in a series of beats governed by turning points that spun the tale around in a zigzagging manner, weaving in surprises to keep the reader interested until the climax and resolution at the end.

Suddenly, I could take an idea and plot it out before commencing the actual writing of it, regardless of whether the Muse had scheduled to visit me that day, that week, that month. My first novel, Scarab, which shot to the #1 spot in the Sci-Fi category on Amazon’s Kindle, is a result of this process.

It was the start of a wonderful journey that has spanned three continents and continues to this day. And though Syd Field is now only one of the many teachers I have followed, I’ll always remember him as my first.

And for that, I’ll toss the nay-sayers a shrug and say, thank you, Mr. Field.

Summary

Syd Field taught me the basics of story-structure.

Observe, Understand, Write.

Woman sitting on park bench
Hey, that's my spot!
People, in the main, are full of foibles, idiosyncrasies, kinks. We like to do things in a certain way, especially the small things: trace a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, even point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other squabbling specialists offer us explanations that range from outright pathology, to the physical deepening of neuron pathways in our brains.

As a writer of novels, I am, of course, interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, quantum physics, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with describing emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story.

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do check those boxes. The best stories endure because they offer us good drama. They engage our emotions. If they do get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people — colourful, authentic characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Every Friday morning, I like to eat hotcakes with butter and syrup at McDonalds before my first lecture on documentary filmmaking at a college in downtown Johannesburg. I’m usually the first customer to be served when the doors open at 6am – I leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic later.

But sometimes I am pipped to the post by an even earlier bird – the same one each time.

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There are, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around. Besides, the bun-patty-egg meals are far more popular.

But then, there is the small matter of my favourite spot.

The table, tucked away in the far corner, is flanked on two sides by large windows that look out into the parking lot and the trees that surround it. I really like that spot. I like it almost as much as I like my hotcakes. I am convinced that they taste better eaten there.

The trouble is, so does the earlier bird.

Now, good manners would have me yield my spot to her, even if, for some reason, I clear the counter with my tray before she does.

And I do. Usually.

But pettily enough, I secretly wish I got there just a minute earlier. I find myself scanning the interior of the shop for my spot even as I’m pulling into the parking area. That long walk to the front entrance feels like a race to the finish line. It informs my behavior for the next minute or two.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help shaking my head in embarrassment.

Yet, despite this, I believe such foibles, habits, and inclinations, trivial as they are, help make us who we are – either because they speak of more a serious condition that needs identifying, or because they offer us a chance to rid ourselves of pettiness as we struggle to learn and grow from life’s lessons.

And speaking of lessons, there is that character in my next novel with a penchant for early-morning Macdonalds hotcakes and corner tables that has just decided to try out a different spot-and-meal combination, and to do so graciously…

Summary

Studying eccentric behaviour that we engage in on a daily basis helps us write captivating, fictional characters that bristle with life, authenticity, and colour.

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Image: Kendrickmartin
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How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning
The Big Yawn:
An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

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Image: Björn Rixman
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How to Outline Your Story

Coloured post-it
Outlining Your Story:
Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story raises its potential quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I am currently following to outline my post apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

I start by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it, highlights its major twists and turns, and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackle the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal that the protagonist strives to gain by the end of the story. The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensure that I have three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey. It also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation, of, at least, the turning points and the midpoint. It forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting the actual writing of my story.

The theme/ending: In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

Lastly, I make sure I know who the main characters of my story will be. Each will represent a point of view and will drive the plot forward. A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and blood stuff, I build, from a series of traits and incidents, as I go along…

…so, while on the subject, back to outlining The Land Below!

Summary

The story premise, as well as the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider prior to commencing the writing your story.

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Image: Jo Guldi
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How Good is Your Story?

Thumbs upAs an author, and a lecturer in the craft of storytelling, I am often asked, in the first instance, and required, in the second, to evaluate work that is presented to me. I am, and always have been, uncomfortable with assigning numerical values (marks) to stories. Stories are not algebra. The final product is not right or wrong. Stories are works of art, and as such, are as slippery as eels. They are, to some extent, subject to taste, to audience/readership preferences, and to the current popularity of specific genres.

Here, I am not referring to grammatical errors, faulty sentence construction, spelling mistakes—to editing. Those are all perfectly quantifiable. I am talking about the perceived worth of more nebulous concepts such as “up” versus “down” endings, relevance of theme, effectiveness of writing style, and even to such technical aspects as judging whether the right balance between characterisation and the relentless forward thrust of the story, has been achieved.

In the past few days I have had to provide guidance regarding the appropriateness of selecting one director over another for study, asked to evaluate a story-in-progress by an indie colleague, and implored to give a rating, as a number out of ten, of a completed first draft of a novel by another.

My answer to the first request was that any director whose body of work has solicited varied opinions, and is of interest to the student, is worthy of study; to the second, that the writer finish the story before seeking the opinion of others; to the third, that I would not give a mark out of ten, but I would offer my opinion as to whether I thought the story to be poor, show promise, or be ready-to-go.

This reluctance to provide a hard judgment on stories is less an indication of temerity or ignorance on my part than it is a response to the changing environment of story reception. Certainly, with regard to indie films and novels, the public is the ultimate judge of whether a story will sink or swim. I know of many instances where work has been turned down by publishers and producers and then has gone on to achieve extraordinary success on amazon, or through Internet channels such as YouTube, resulting in burgeoning writing and film making careers on the part of the writers and filmmakers.

Does this challenge the belief that some works are genuinely better than others? Certainly, not in terms of quantifiable technical aspects that are subject to proper editing; but it does acknowledge the proliferation of relativism with regards to theme and subject matter. In a fast-changing, technologically-driven world where the boundaries of nationality and personal identity (and, by implication, genre), are bleeding into each other, these aspects of a story are a lot harder to pin down, let alone, evaluate. My advise to story tellers is simply this: Write your stories to the best of your ability and let your readership or audience decide on whether they succeed or fail.

Summary

The success or failure of your stories, especially for indie writers and filmmakers, ultimately lies in the hands of your readership or audience. Solicit the opinion of experts on technical aspects of your work, but leave the judgment about your subject matter and its stylistic treatment to the latter.

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Image by Barry Solow

Writers’ Winning Ways

Winning Writing Habits
Although neither sacrosanct nor replete the list below reveals some of the winning habits of writers and creatives across the world.

1. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

2. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

6. Write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point here is to support the writing habit and it will support you.

7. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage.

8. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Summary

Becoming a successful writer often involves traveling down a long and difficult road—it is not for the faint-hearted. Fostering healthy habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals easier to achieve.

Inspiration

In this post I take time-out from my usual exploration of specific creative writing techniques to ruminate about a subject that I’ve been interested in since I started writing. At its core, it’s about the relationship between plotting and pantsing, the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

I hold the view that a pre-determined plot is necessary prior to the commencement of the first draft, especially in a screenplay where there is limited space for things to fall into place. But I also maintain that magic often comes unexpectedly.

Certainly, our knowledge of structure, dialogue, pace, and the like—essentially a left brain activity, is necessary during the editing of the drafts to follow, but can this theoretical knowledge of the craft ever take the place of spontaneity, serendipity, and the efficacy of the muse—the activity stemming from the right side of our brain?

I think not. Nor should it have to. I think the purpose of theoretical knowledge is to saturate both hemispheres so that the level of practical knowledge (active skill) is seamlessly guided by the theoretical.

In writing Scarab II: Reawakening, for example, I meticulously plotted the shape of the story, using my knowledge of structure, before commencing work on the actual writing. Yet, perhaps the most interesting, and, in my opinion, gripping part of the novel, the expanded role of Dr. Kobus van Niekerk, the South African archeologist, occurred at the last moment, during the actual writing itself. This was quite unplanned for and was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will be to the reader. This was a moment of inspiration that rode above the pre-planned plot—although it did significantly add to it.

My point is that large structural changes or additions can assail one at any time, and should be absorbed, if deemed fitting, at any stage of the writing process. They are perhaps the clearest sign of the two hemispheres working together in concert and, therefore, that plotting and pantsing are not rivals but co-conspirators in the craft of writing.

Summary

Insight often comes unexpectedly and seems, at first sight, to be at odds with our original direction. Integrating it into our creative process, however, often makes for a more original and inspired story.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Story Maps

Map
Mapping the Creative Process:
In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.

Summary

Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.