Ratcheting up the Tension in your Manuscript

When I draft a novel, I have a tendency to let my characters hang out. Maybe it’s just authorly wish-fulfilment, but I really want to be somewhere safe and comfortable, listening to Roar tell stories, smiling as Aria and Perry do something adorable. Sigh. Anyway, because of this subconscious desire, my first drafts are full of what my dear friend calls low temperature scenes.

A low temperature scene has little tension, and lacks stakes—emotional or physical. In a nutshell, it's not compelling. My job in revisions is to identify these scenes and add sources of conflict. Basically, I have to break up the party and bring the pain.

You want to feel like you're reading a book with this guy staring you down.
Tense, right? Or is that just me? It is? Nevermind.
I don’t have a real science for spiking the temperature to a fevery pitch in my scenes. Sometimes, the problem is a global issue. I might need to rethink the entire central problem, the foundation of the book, which then allows me to lift every scene’s temp to where it needs to be.

Many times, I find the problem is that I’m making my characters reactive. The plot happens to them, instead of them being the masters of their own story. This tendency spreads boredom and flatness through a manuscript like a plague. Characters who take charge (or even attempt to take charge) energize a story. Think of the people in your life who are active and involved. They didn’t start that business, run that marathon, travel to Fiji, by sitting around, did they? And how can high-impact stakes exist for characters who aren't striving and wanting?

What’s the solution to this problem? Goals. Characters need goals for each and every scene. The hang out party with my characters mentioned above? It would improve right away if I were trying to get Roar to tell a specific story. Character goals are a story’s turbo boosters. Use ‘em.

The above are macro changes, but tension and conflict should exist on the micro-level, too. This is an example of me revising:
  • Are my characters agreeing too much in this scene?
  • Why the heck are they agreeing? This is fiction!
  • Are they facing a problem?
  • Darn it, I need a better problem. What can they wrestle with here?
  • Is there a sense of pace, of time chipping away, on each page?
  • What-Why—Dangit! Why isn’t there a sense of urgency in this scene?
And so on and so forth.

So that’s me. How do you add tension and conflict to your stories? What are your secrets?

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