Supertaunt Tension and Sizzling Stakes

Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)

Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.

Stakes

We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:

  1. Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
  2. Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
  3. Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.

Tension

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:

  1. Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
  2. Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
  3. Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.

So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!

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  1. Melissa’s avatar

    Oh, thank you! I’m going to have to think about this, which means it’s good.

    Melissa

  2. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    In the same vein, I think proportion is important when scripting tension.

    On my first manuscript, I just wrote without thinking about tension, stakes, etc. I wrote scenes in chronological order. She did this, then she did that, blah, blah.

    Blech.

    Then a wise workshopper taught me about tension. I’m learning to cut out scenes which don’t move plot forward. I fast forward to key scenes. And in each scene, I work to keep a laser focus on the conflict.

    What difference this makes!

    I’ve noticed great writers can manipulate tension to provoke an almost Pavlovian response from the reader.

    Thanks for the lessons, Mary!

  3. Bane’s avatar

    Finally, some items I feel halfway confident in :)… Another excellent rundown — particularly like 2 & 3 under stakes.

  4. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    ” You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages…”

    Haha, this made me laugh. Very well written from a gal who knows her stuff. Some great things to keep in the forefront while revising. And, well, honestly, not just revising but starting any project. Thanks!

  5. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Fantastic.

    ChristaCarol— I laughed out loud at that too, “…You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages.”

    It’s so true, though. I mean, sure, I love getting my heart pumping while reading some sweet action scenes in a book or something, but still, can’t leave me hanging too much at the end that it ticks me off. Well, and then heart attacks, yeah, not such a good thing. :-)

    Another great post, Mary.

  6. Siski Green’s avatar

    Do you think you could do a post on procrastination? Or have you already? I find myself reading your posts, taking notes of key points, typing them out, giving the file a clever name, reorganizing the folder it’s in and so on and so forth until… it’s time to make another cup of coffee!

  7. Lilliam Rivera’s avatar

    This week’s posts have been so informative. I’m in the middle of revising and each post has given me such great insight. Thanks!

  8. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Great blog, Mary. You know you’d make a great teacher of writing, don’t you? :)

  9. Susan James’s avatar

    I couldn’t get past Sizzling Stakes- my stomach is growling so loud, I gotta go start dinner. Argh, why is there so much need for sustenance and clean laundry when all I wanna do is write! I’ll check in later.

  10. Cassandra’s avatar

    Thanks for this oh-so-helpful post!

  11. Kristi’s avatar

    Another wonderful post and such perfect timing as I’m in the thick of revisions. Thank you!

  12. bjanderson’s avatar

    This is going to be another one to print out and put in my “revision” binder. Right after I start up the grill for my steaks. :D Thanks for the great info!

  13. Melissa’s avatar

    “Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story.”

    That’s the key for me. Books about writing always say that a scene should advance the plot OR tell the reader something new about the character. In my writing, when my my plot moves forward quickly, it’s all fine. The tension bubbles. But when I try to slow down and focus in on developing a character, the bubbles pop.

    Thanks again, Mary. Your post clarified the issue nicely. Now I know better what I need to study when I read published books.

    Best,
    Melissa

  14. Melissa’s avatar

    If any of the rest of you are struggling with this issue as much as I am, check out THE INTERN’s thoughts on the subject: http://internspills.blogspot.com/2009/11/nanorevismo-1-electric-kool-aid.html

  15. Silvia’s avatar

    I’ve been checking this blog for a while and it’s the first time I’ve copied and pasted so many posts. Thank you for the great advice!

  16. Christina’s avatar

    Great advice as always. You really should think about teaching a writer’s class. You have the knack for it! Thanks for sharing.

  17. Karen Collum’s avatar

    Excellent post, Mary. You’ve really clarified this for me and I feel like I have a better grasp of both tension and stakes now, so thank you. I can now revise with this in mind, but also write with it in mind too. So many gems :)

  18. Jackee’s avatar

    Great stuff, Mary, thanks!

    I love that you use the word button. I might steal that one, if you don’t mind. :)

  19. Piper’s avatar

    This post just helped me with a huge problem in my MG. The whole story hinges on a group of kids attempting to solve a mystery, but something felt off and now I see that I haven’t given them a ‘real’ reason for doing anything. I’m now infusing the story with kid-friendly motivation and things are crackling along quite nicely.

    How fun it must be to know that every post on your blog changes writers’ lives and gives people hope and inspiration. You rock! :)

  20. Laura Perdew’s avatar

    Love thisinfo! I copied and pasted it for my own writing files. The information is easy to use and practical…I think I’ll use it when outlining my next novel as a pre-writing exercise.

  21. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    This is such a great post. I was at critique not to long ago and a newbie to informed me she couldn’t read past the first page, she was disturbed. I guess I did what I was supposed to do, according to this post, yay! I tried not to take it to personal, but what my character was going through was real because I went through it. I did end up toning it down a bit. Thanks Mary for sharing your knowledge, your so wise! You know your a great agent when, writers dream of having you as an agent because you help improve their craft so immensely.

  22. Erin Kelly Cormier’s avatar

    Mary -
    The thread that seems to tie all this together is PACE. I find that this is my greatest struggle. Sometimes it feels as if the story is moving forward too quickly or too slowly. There are times when I consider writing a throat-clearing chapter just so I can sandwich it between two fast-paced chapters, just to keep some kind of steady pace. By the same token I don’t want to “force” a more expo/character-heavy chapter just-because.

    Do you find that pacing is a big problem in your slush pile? Any quick words of wisdom?

    Erin

  23. Janelle’s avatar

    Mary, you are the best. I came by today so I could do a search on chapter endings, and there was your post with a section on…chapter endings! Yay! If you have time, I would love to hear your opinion on the difference (if there is/should be one) in this area between commercial and literary fiction.

  24. Janelle’s avatar

    Annnnnd, I just realized this post was from 2009! That’s what I get for searching while tired. I’m guessing you won’t be going back to old posts to answer questions. Still, thanks for writing this up way back when.

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