How to Write a Better Story by Tweaking the Tension

by Kasturi Pananjady, Age 16, India

Artwork by Katie King

 

Tweaking the tension #1There’s an old saying that goes: “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.”

Tension is one of the most important ways a reader becomes invested in your story and characters. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to get it right. If you have found yourself giving up on too many of your stories, you might benefit from tweaking the tension.

The first thing to remember is that no matter how much we love our characters, we don’t have a story until we push them out of their comfort zones and create conflict. We have to make their lives miserable before (hopefully) making them better.

One way of creating believable conflict is to give your character flaws and working from there. Let’s say that your main character, let’s call her Jane, has a lack of self-confidence. Possible ways to proceed from there would be to introduce a bully or a domineering friend, perhaps even a harsh teacher. Does Jane have a confidante? Maybe this will be a side-plot in a greater story arc where she saves the world, or maybe this will just be the story of how she learns to stand up for herself.

This brings me to my second point. What is the central problem in your story? Good ways to go about answering this are to ask yourself what Jane wants and create as many obstacles as possible, or to ask yourself what Jane fears most and make it happen. Identifying the major problem in your plot will allow you to introduce side-plots that either help or hinder her progress. For example, Jane has written a story that, on her supportive sister Cassandra’s urging, she has submitted to her English teacher for criticism. Perhaps one of her strong-willed friends dislikes a character based on him, or the teacher himself recognizes some of his unflattering characteristics in an authority figure. Perhaps neither is inclined to forgiveness, with disastrous effects on Jane’s potential career. Or perhaps Jane’s mother has always harboured a different dream for her daughter and her future.

The conflict doesn’t have to be spelled out for your readers. Tension can be brought out with great subtlety using dialogue, or the lack of it. You also don’t want the conflict to seem forced. Perhaps a minor incident tucked in a few pages before Jane shows her friend her story could bring out his tendency to hold grudges. Maybe he complains about how Jane had once cancelled plans they had made because she had to help Cassandra with homework. Jane, being Jane, doesn’t think twice about apologising for the hundredth time.

Remember not to overdo the trouble. It is important to keep Jane’s hopes in the forefront as well. Don’t mince words when writing about the simple joy that she experiences when her father, whose opinion she values highly, proudly shows her story to an acquaintance. Maybe this incident forces Jane back into writing. A rule of thumb is that unless one is writing humour or a satirical piece, the conflict has to be believable.

Don’t worry about these rules while writing. The first thing to do is to write. Put everything down on paper. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t and, once you’re satisfied with what you have got down, only then start worrying about how to make it better.

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Kasturi Pananjady is a 16 year old writer from India. She has been writing stories right from the time she found out that you were allowed to create your own and has been inching towards her dream of being a published writer ever since.

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