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Plot Tension

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Jan. 19th, 2010 | 08:37 am
mood: hungryhungry

From a note left outside our lair:
It's so great to see our scaly friends back again! *Dons fireproof suit*

How do you build tension into a story? Well, say you have three strong characters, and they all have their own sort of story, how do you show these differing story goals and yet keep the tension high?

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this, I really appreciate it. ::Removes the suit, heh!::

The Gnome

Dear Snack- er, Gnome:
3 characters at once, all with different goals? Sounds like life in the Lair, with Dragon roasting knights throughout the day, when a sensible being would be sleeping, and Moonchild riffling through scrolls until you just want to unsheathe your claws and… but I digress.
Or maybe I don’t. If the various goals differ, they can conflict. Where there’s conflict, there’s tension, as other denizens of the Lair have mentioned. From the way you speak of “three strong characters,” I suspect that these could all be protagonists. In that case, you have an extra edge to your claws. The reader wants to root for all of them. She wants them all to win.

And if the characters care for each other, and their goals require them to hurt or betray each other or risk losing their goal...Delicious. How will they choose?
By the way, leave the suit. Asbestos can be quite tasty on properly-flamed BBQ.

Hello Gnome,
No need to don your fireproof suit. Mm, yum, gnomes are tasty little morsels. *roar* Stoking the firestones. Ahem, please ignore the stomach rumblings of this dragon.

To answer your first question, this dragon thinks that it is highly unlikely that three strong characters would have the same goals, so right there is conflict. What kind depends on the characters and their wants and motivations. Do they all want to achieve/obtain the same thing and go about it in different ways? That's conflict that can be presented in various ways: one scene can show a character depressed, and that's a low tension scene but it is still a conflict. Then the two other characters can have a heated argument, which would be a high-tension scene. This would provide high and low tension for variation, so as not to wear out the reader.

This dragon thinks it's also important that all three characters' desire/motivation/goal be tied into the theme of the story. For example: Rosalyn wants to be a singer but is tone deaf. She could remedy this with the magic of a star stone. Johann needs to obtain the star stone to secure the throne to the Kingdom. The evil magician wants it for himself, to use it in wicked mischief.

I hope this is helpful. Go forth and plot.
Ravenously Yours, Orion

Mmm...Gnome.... Oh, wait. Promised not to eat petitioners.

After much discussion in the Lair, including B&G (again!) messing up my scrolls, we decided that this is indeed two questions, and we should address them separately.

For the first part, this dragon has to think of who each character is, and what their goals are. Do any of the goals conflict? (Hint: This is a Good Thing.) Is there one character who you want to win his/her goal, even at the expense of the others? Examine your reasons. This dragon has in the past had to change stories from their drafts into an almost unrecognizable form when she realized "because I want it," wasn't a good enough reason. Neither is, "because it would be cool." Keeping the tension high throughout the length of the story can be very difficult, and not always desirable. Some dragons go to movies to watch things blow up, others go to watch (shudder) _relationships_. The same is true of reading stories. But even if things are blowing up, it's okay to have a cool-down scene afterwards.

The important thing is this: What does the character want? What's the worst thing I can do to him/her to keep him/her from attaining it? How can I make it even worse? Is the character even sure of what s/he wants? How can I make that worse? (Example: Your story is set in the American Civil War. Your character is a white Southerner who is also an Abolitionist. Does your character want the North to win?)

The only warning I would give with cool-down scenes is that it depends on the length of the story. If your story is only 2000 words, you probably don't want the reader to cool down at all. If it's 2000 pages, on the other hand, a few pages on which things don't blow up is okay.

Back to differing goals, imagine your story is political in nature. One character wants to sign a trade agreement with Country X. Another character thinks Country X is full of murderers who should be wiped off the face of the planet. A third character doesn’t feel extreme in one direction or the other, but he wants the political effort expended in favor of Country Y.

Look at why each character wants this, and what will happen if each gets what they want. Keep in mind that they cannot all get what they want, but going to war with Country X might not preclude a trade agreement with Country Y. Unless, of course, it would…mwhahahhaha…

"Slurp, slurp...burp...ahhh...just gobbled the last of the inpatients."

What did you say my little gnome, guardian of Earth's treasures? How do you show three different characters' story goals and still keep the tension high? This dragon says, have the character state their story goal, or one of the other characters state it for him/her. Not once but twice and maybe three times as naturally as possible. More if necessary. For example. This dragon wants the Gnome's hidden treasure by the end of the story. This puts Gnome in grave danger. Build tension through dialog to move the plot forward. Your characters are put in danger and then beaten to a pulp in order to reach their story goal.

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Comments {1}


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from: kara_gnome
date: Jan. 20th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)

Losing a few snackish fingers is fine, thank you for your gentleness.

These are great suggestions. Conflict--I think that's exactly what I've been missing. They all want the same thing and pretty much agree on what needs to happen, so the conflict I've been going for seems contrived, now that I think about it. I think a few blow-ups are called for, heh.

Anyway, thank you very much; if I ever meet a fair maiden, I'll be sure to introduce you *g*

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