Keep the pressure on

Craig with you today. Sometimes I have topics to spare, and sometimes I struggle for one. Since this site is for authors, I need to deliver something that might help you with your own stories.

I spent Saturday watching old movies. Then it came to me. We have plots and characters, but there is a kind of tension that binds them all together inside the story. We can’t neglect that, or our tales will seem formulaic.

One of the films I re-watched was Dante’s Peak. This is one of my favorite films. There is a point where everyone went back up the mountain to rescue the stupid ex-mother-in-law. The volcano takes the cabin and the cars. They are forced to escape across the lake.

I’ve written about my index card method of plotting before. Rescue the old bat might be one index card. The next one is to get to the Ranger Station and jack a truck to make their escape. Here is where that other kind of tension shows up in the story. They get into a boat and intend to cross the lake, then hike to the Ranger Station. However, the lake has turned to acid, and it’s dissolving the boat. The goal is to get from A to B, but you can’t make it easy on them. Sure they’re going to succeed, but they have to struggle along the way somehow.

The next movie that came on was Young Frankenstein. There is a scene where Frankenstein re-captures the monster and is going to transfer part of his mind to it to make it more calm and logical. Obviously, it’s going to work, and after a few more gags, they’ll all live happily ever after.

But… Frankenstein instructed them to wait fifteen minutes, not one second more or less, before disconnecting both of them. This introduces the tension of a ticking clock, which is a great device. It also tells us this has to be done correctly, and there are no second chances… So, of course, this is the exact time the rioting citizens storm the castle. Of course they’re going to complete the process, but you can’t make it easy on them.

My current story works the same way. My pirates are going from place to place to accomplish some goals. These are my index cards. In the drafting phase, I have to come up with this tension between the index cards.

Don’t make things easy on your characters. Why sail out of port when you can shoot your way out?

Let’s say your character is going somewhere. She could just drive there and get it over with. In fact there are times when that’s a better idea. However, you could have her get lost briefly. Why not have cell service disappear too? She could ask directions, or buy a map. Or… she could steal a map from a local’s pickup, and get caught doing it. Maybe she steals a cell phone in a moment of desperation, from a cop car.

This is small stuff, but it also gives you a chance to reveal character, and add some glue to the whole project.

What do you folks think? Am I out of my mind? (Don’t answer that one.) Do you look for ways to add that constant tension to your stories? Does this work better on the editing pass for you?

33 thoughts on “Keep the pressure on

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  3. I love Dante’s Peak. The MIL issue (particularly the lake scene) still captivates me to this day.

    You raise a good point about tension. Characters, plot, and setting all add to the mix (if done correctly). Even something as simple and disinteresting as a cricket chirp can be used to great effect.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tension for me tends to appear from how my characters respond as I write–at least that’s the panster in me. I’ve mostly plotted book 3 of my new series, so I had to add the tension in along with the plotting. For me everything comes in the draft stage. By the time I finish a book, it’s pretty much polished and just needs small tweaks, because I edit as I go.

    I can’t tell you how much I love the movie Dante’s Peak, one of my all time favorite films. Besides the obvious tension from the “big moments” there’s also all the quieter tension of build up (the dead trees and wildlife, the bubbling hot spring, etc., etc.). That stuff is pure gold. A entertaining post, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I struggled for a last minute topic. I knew I wasn’t up until August, then suddenly it was August. I’ve been writing some of this tension into my story, so it was on my mind. My storyboards are pretty light. They might say “go from A to B to accomplish C.” Everything else happens during the draft. I could take the outlines to that depth, but find I don’t need to.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that tension is definitely necessary, especially if you have an action component to the story. With a group, you can have the question of ‘Will everyone survive?’ show up too. People will expect there to be survivors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eliminate one character or hurt them to make future obstacles more of a challenge. Reading this makes me think about how things should never run smoothly for characters. There’s always a wrinkle that turns up to make them think on their feet or at least make them sweat.

    Liked by 1 person

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