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T is for “TENSION”
Book: HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION: 13 Techniques plus the Five Minute Magic Trick Guaranteed to Keep Your Readers Turning Pages by Amy Deardon
My dice roll: 117 (ebook location out of 908)
Lesson: Events should make it worse
Tension building relies on the protagonist being worse off after the events you throw at them. A series of equally bad events does not increase tension.
“I burned the toast to ash. There were no filters for the coffee maker. My eggs expired. I dropped the bacon on the dirty floor.” — All of those are bad. The situation has not moved the character into a different place though. Everything can be solved in one grocery trip or by going out to breakfast. If the toast had started a fire, the coffee maker broken while trying to put out the flames, the eggs resulted in food poisoning, and the bacon on the floor lead to a slick surface that resulted in a head injury— that would build more tension.
For my example, I’m going to outline Gwendolyn’s scenes from Fraction of Existence.
The story opens with Xavier encountering Gwendolyn’s scent, but the reader doesn’t know that.
Xavier and Gwendolyn then “meet” in an online RPG chat. He’s in NYC, she’s in southern California.
Far away, in the Golden State, a gray-eyed maiden typed replies to her new gamer friend. She did not know the impact they would have on each other. She never considered how much common history two strangers could share. Falling for him would be unlikely. Such a union being conspired against seemed unpredictable. She couldn’t know, as she typed her next line, how much the course of her life would change.
“Gwendolyn. You asked what my real name is, it’s Gwendolyn. But you can call me Wend.”
They become friends, then deal with a scheduling conflict that keeps them apart for a month.
She asks him to be her date to a wedding, but he can’t make it.
Wend finds out that Xavier isn’t in the LDS. This news makes her worse off because she doesn’t date outside her faith.
Her family gets on her case about her fear of the wind after finding out she slept in a closet, again.
Then her father arranges a marriage for her to his friend, Tred. She tells Xavier this. His response is:
“In the game, your character, Candra, believes in romance. I’ve seen your reactions when my character has brought you flowers or written poetry for you. Has your intended brought you flowers or written poems for you? Or does none of that hold true to who you really are?”
Wend is worse off because his words lead her to feelings of guilt and then of temptation to cheat on Tred.
Tred takes Wend on her first ever unchaperoned date. She is dressed wrong. Her mother changes Wend’s attire, like she’s a child. Tred isn’t a dream date.
She babysits her nephew. He almost chokes to death. A freak storm of tornadoes rips through the area. Something in her mind shifts, but she can’t get it focus. She calls Tred for comfort but ends up worse off when he criticizes her for this.
Wend ends up in a phone call with Xavier instead. Though he cheers her up, she feels worse off because they argue about his telling her that she’s beautiful.
Tred has breakfast with Wend’s father. He asks if something is wrong with her and says he’s not sure if Wend is ready to marry. She’s worse off because she’s letting down her family.
Wend calls Xavier to cry about this. A woman answers his phone. She’s worse off because she fears that Tred doesn’t want her and Xavier moved on overnight.
She reveals that her deepest fear is that she’ll end up with a husband who doesn’t want her. And possibly that her marriage will be null and void if it isn’t consummated. Xavier makes it worse by leading her into temptation.
Wend receives flowers from Xavier. Her shifted mind tingles again, but she still can’t focus on it— like almost remembering something or forgetting what one is saying in mid-sentence.
Tred comes over to visit. Wend vomits on him. She hides in her closet. Tred and her family find her and insist she comes out. Wend’s dress gets caught, resulting in a pantie flash. She finds out her younger sister has been reading her diary. Her mother ends up dressing her, again. And then she has to go outside in the wind, which she’s terrified of, to face Tred.
He wants to move the wedding up. Have the ceremony in two weeks, on New Year’s Eve. And then leave her with his children while he’s gone for the next eight months. She ends up worse off because her temper takes over and she runs away.
Wend ends up at an appalling ocean-side hotel in gang territory. She calls Xavier to tell him that she walked out on Tred, and she details the humiliation she suffered. She asks Xavier to come get her. He says he can’t leave because he’s protecting a friend, but he offers to send someone to get her. Wend flips out at him for not coming to save her.
“Protect you. Right,” Xavier said slowly, as if the idea hadn’t occurred to him.
“You really would leave me here, wouldn’t you? I’m sorry I didn’t make an appointment for your attention! I didn’t check your precious schedule before calling to ask you for help.”
“Wend, it isn’t like that. I just don’t see you as helpless. I am certain that no one could ever hurt you against your will,” Xavier explained.
“Well you’re wrong about that, Xavier Patrick Doyen, because you just have! Don’t bother sending anyone for me. I’ll figure this out on my own. Or maybe I’ll call my fiancé, like I should have in the first place!” As she hung up the phone she wished that somehow it could make a loud sound that would leave his ear ringing for a while.
In the morning, she sits in the hotel room, planning her wedding on a piece of spare paper. She makes herself sick with worry thinking about the honeymoon and what she and Tred would wear to bed. An image of Tred laughing at leaves her mind worse off. The fear gets traded for guilt when her fantasy switches to Xavier. She’s worse off because she can’t picture a happy wedding night with her fiancé, but she can with someone else.
Wend goes home and apologizes. Tred tells her that he never plans to consummate their marriage. Wend realizes she left her phone at the hotel. Her sister drives her back to get it. Wend has a complete meltdown.
Tred takes Wend to a wedding planner. He’s already planned nearly the entire event. She flips out. Tred calms her down. Wend agrees to spend Christmas with him and his children. They resume planning the wedding. He joins her and her family for a nice dinner. When he goes to leave, he finally kisses her on the lips. Everything seems perfect.
Xavier calls while Wend is out Christmas shopping. He says he’s flown in and would like to meet up to exchange presents. He offers to take her to an expensive, exclusive restaurant. She agrees, and then she goes shopping for something to wear to such a place. She ends up worse off because she realizes that she doesn’t belong in his world. She calls him to cancel. He offers to meet her at the Santa Monica pier instead.
It goes well at first. But then they have a fight.
Wend takes a shower. A slip and fall almost kills her. She thinks she hallucinates Xavier saving her. For a moment, the tingle in her shifted mind becomes clear. But it slips away as she comes too and is carted off to the hospital.
She tells Xavier that she’ll accept his apology for the fight at the pier if he’ll take her Christmas shopping. He agrees and comes to get her. She asks him to come to dinner and meet her family. Tred is there too, waiting. Wend’s family is cold to Xavier. Tred has words with Xavier out of Wend’s earshot. Then Xavier tells her that he’s leaving; he’s heading back to NYC. She’s worse off because her heart breaks.
Her family and Tred watch her every move and check her phone to ensure she has no contact with Xavier.
Wend doesn’t fit into the sweater that Tred gave her and insisted she wear for the holiday. She doesn’t wear it. She ends up worse off because he scolds her for this.
She finds out how strict Tred is and how he runs his household. She’s worse off because it feels suffocating to her, and she can’t imagine living like this.
Tred shows Wend around the house. He shows her their separate beds.
Christmas gifts are opened. Every one that Wend brought is deemed inappropriate. The children worry they’re in trouble for even opening such gifts. Wend is worse off because she’s made a terrible first impression.
The children eat some cookies that Wend brought. But it’s peanut butter cookies. Wend didn’t label them. The children are allergic.
“Stop telling me how sorry you are! Those are my children— my flesh and blood. I would do anything for them. You could not know how much I love them. And you… you came in to my home and nearly killed them! There is no amount of apologizing that will ever make this right.”
Tred breaks up with her. She’s worse off because she’s let down her family, nearly killed some children, and has ruined Christmas.
A conversation with a cab driver leads her to realize she belongs with Xavier.
She’s too afraid to face her family to pack properly, so she leaves everything behind and decides to drive to NYC. Wend gets as much money as she can from an ATM. She’s mistaken for a prostitute at a truck-stop diner. Her phone dies and she doesn’t have a charger. She blames herself for a storm but then decides that’s ridiculous. A “nightmare” makes her think she’s gone insane, though it seems like a warning to end her trip.
The next night, her “dream” makes her long to get to Xavier. Something stirs again in her shifted mind, but she still can’t quite grasp it. She wakes up and learns that wind gusts have caused damage outside. Travel is suspended.
Wend finally gets back on the road. Her car breaks down in the night. She ends up sleeping in it, cold and alone.
She gets towed into town. Wend uses the bathroom at the repair garage. It’s plastered with pinups. She’s worse off because the visual of those women triggers her insecurities, leading her to feel she isn’t good enough for Xavier. She recalls that he left her and wonders what she’s doing. The mechanic calms her down. But then she’s worse off because he doesn’t have the part for her car.
“I need to get to New York City. I can’t wait around. I want mine to be the lips that he chooses to kiss at midnight when the ball drops.”
Wend buys a bus ticket, the only one she can get. But she’ll just barely make it to NYC in time. And she’s worse off because now she’s flat broke.
She can’t take a cab or a subway once she leaves the NYC bus terminal. She’s been wearing the same clothing for a week, so she looks like a vagrant. Xavier’s doorman treats her as such, at first. Then she finds out that Xavier isn’t home.
Wend ends up at Times Square. She spots Xavier. The battle to get through the crowd is on as the ten-second ball-drop countdown begins.
(One more scene and the story ends, but it’s not happily ever after.)
Does that feel like a decent amount of tension to you? How much tension do you like in books? What’s your favorite high-intensity scene of all time (book, movie, TV— any fictional source).
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