Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ramping Up the Story Conflict -- How to Keep Your Readers Turning Pages

How do you manage conflict in your stories? Are you using tension to keep your readers turning the pages?

Recently, I paid for a critique of my WIP so I can get an idea of areas I need to improve. One of the most helpful pieces of criticism I received is that I tend to wrap up the conflict in my WIP too quickly... sometimes even by the end of the same chapter that conflict is introduced.

See, I know I need tension in my story for it to operate properly. I always spend time brainstorming challenges and problems for my characters, and I try to match those challenges to the emotional areas the characters most need to grow. My problem? I don't like conflict. I feel bad making my characters squirm! I'll gladly introduce a series of setbacks for them... but seeing them suffer on account of those setbacks? Well, that's a different story.

But I realized, through this feedback, that when we back too quickly out of conflict, we cheat our readers out of a deeper emotional resonance in the story world. A character shouldn't go from an internal struggle to a state of peace within only a page or two. Readers need to see that struggle really developed before they can be moved emotionally by its resolution.

Do you have a tendency, like me, to introduce a problem, and then move on too quickly? Maybe you're afraid you'll forget to resolve the obstacle, so you do it before you have a chance to forget. Maybe you don't like writing scenes where your characters are struggling. Maybe you're just ready to get on to the next part of the story.

Here are three easy tricks you can use to ramp up the tension and keep your readers guessing.

1) Even in a romance, include red herrings. Your characters should not be successful at everything each time they attempt it. If your character is a teenager learning to drive, have her run over a few curbs and maybe even slam into the garage--hey, don't we all have those stories in real life? If your character is looking to solve a crime, consider giving her some bad information--a false clue that will send her in the wrong direction. By challenging your characters in this way, you'll also challenge your readers' expectations of what comes next, and you'll hold their interest. Make these distractions/setbacks as organic and believable as possible. The more believable they are, the more likely your readers will buy in and then be surprised later.

2) Look for opportunities to expand conflict in each scene, particularly in your chapter endings. Do your chapters end with a zinger in the middle of a conflict? While everyone loves turning the pages in the middle of a heated scene, be sure you don't use chapter breaks as an excuse to back out of conflict development. Are your characters having a verbal spat? Let's see it on the page. Is one of your characters running from someone and having to hide out? Let's see how she manages. Look for spaces in each scene where you've shied away from showing the actual conflict, then find a way to fill in those gaps and ramp up the tension. There's nothing I hate more, as a reader, than finding myself invested in a particular conversation or circumstance, only to find it's cut off prematurely by a chapter break.

3) Surprise, surprise, surprise. As readers, we may like characters who are predictable, but rarely do they challenge us. Fiction has the secret weapon of imagination-- use that to your advantage. Be tricky. Lead your readers to believe one thing, then surprise them with a twist--being sure you plant subtle clues all along. Suspense and mystery are not the only genres that benefit from the element of surprise. When you're sitting down to write the black moment in your romance, consider whether your readers will be able to anticipate what's coming. If they can, ask yourself what your characters might do that defies that expectation. Surprised readers are interested readers, and often the most satisfied.

Remember that like a bow and arrow, the tighter you pull the threads of your story, the further it will reach. It may take time, editing, and practice, but well-developed conflict is worth all the effort to your readers.

Can you think of any examples of stories with excellent use of tension? How do you stir up the conflict in your own writing?


Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Ooh, LOVE that arrow analogy! That's perfect!! I thrive on adding tension and making my characters suffer. Ha! I think my problem is I make them suffer a little too much at times, and probably could do with a little more comic relief! This is a great post.

Pepper said...

Oh Ashley, I'm with Karen! That bow/arrow analogy made it SO visual for me.
And painful! I really need to work on tension. I think I develop it better in my historicals than in the contemporaries.
Or I allow the conflict to resolve too quickly or easily (as you said). Yep. Hurting sweet people is not my forte
Now the villains??? Bring on that BOW AND ARROW ;-)

This is GREAT stuff!!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

What a helpful post, Ashley! I'm figuring out how to build tension, but I feel like my stories are a bit predictable. I'm trying to figure out how to be better at adding elements of surprise. Any suggestions?

I loved this post!

Pepper said...

Ash will probably have some better advice for you, but here's something I'll do sometimes.
I'll make a list of 3 things my character might do and 1 thing she/he probably wouldn't do (within reason) - then I'll see if I can work in her doing the very thing she wouldn't do.
Lots of times that ramps up some tension.
If all else fails, you could take Mary Connealy's advice.
Bring someone in with a gun :-)

Angie Dicken said...

Great advice, Ashley! I just finished Laura Frantz's The Colonel's Lady, and she does a great job leaving the conflict unresolved enough that you keep wanting to read to find relief for the character! It's so tricky to ramp up that conflict enough to get the reader to care, but once we do, I think you can achieve a very taut bow!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, you are so funny! I read your comment imagining you giving an evil laugh. :)

Pepper, YES! So often, I'll give a conflict, but resolve it way too quickly. I think I'm giving readers whiplash! I'm going to work on slowing down to better develop the tension.

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, what a GREAT question! I'm working on doing the same thing myself, so I'll just tell you what I've been saying to myself. First off, I think it's important to know your characters on a deep level. Are they afraid to enter into relationships? Are they angry? Is your hero a playboy? Ask yourself why. And then when you think you know the answer, ask why again. Once you had a super solid understanding of your characters, it becomes a bit easier to then ask, "What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my character?" You might surprise yourself with the list of things that come to mind! But using their struggle is a great starting point to brainstorm twists, because the twists will still feel consistent to their character development but will also feel surprising.

Ashley Clark said...

Pepper, I love that advice!

Angie, that sounds like a great story! I LOVE when books use tension well because it keeps my interest throughout the story and keeps me from putting the book down and forgetting about it. :)