The Importance of Rising Tension in Your Story

Thursday, August 09, 2012
The other day, my son discovered Maury Povich, and it wasn’t just any topic. This was “whose the baby’s daddy.” I decided to watch with my tween son and use the show to drive home a few cautionary points. What I didn’t expect was a lesson in building tension.

First, they would bring out the young woman. She would tell her story and swear up, down and sideways that the guy they were about to meet was the father and she was going to prove it. THE PROTAGONIST had a GOAL.

Then Povich would interview the “father” who would swear that there was no way the child was his. He became the ANTAGONIST.

This alone would just be a case of he said, she said. But the producers made sure we got RISING TENSION. One guy said the baby didn’t look like him. Another pointed out that she had pulled this before; he had proved the first baby wasn’t his. The ANTAGONIST has a GOAL that goes against the protagonist’s goal.

At last, Povich held the envelope with the DNA test in his hand – the TURNING POINT. Invariably the man in question was not the baby’s father. Why invariably? To keep the TENSION high, and, believe me, with the tears, screaming and name calling, there was plenty of tension.

As writers, you need to manage the tension in your stories as if you were a producer on Maury Povich.

Start with your PROTAGONIST. What is her GOAL? If you are going to use it to create tension, it has to be a big deal. What is at risk if she fails? She doesn’t have to look foolish on national television, but the bigger it is the more tension you will create.

There also has to be someone or something in her way. If you use an ANTAGONIST, vs. nature or time, your antagonist doesn’t have to be evil. His goal just has to be at odds with the goal of your protagonist.

Before the end of the story, you need to INCREASE THE TENSION. The reader could learn something about the protagonist that puts her goal in question. Or another character could surprisingly side with the antagonist. In some way, the protagonist must meet a REVERSAL.

This is where so many of us fall down on the job. We like our characters and don’t want to be the cause of their suffering. We make things too easy. We make things boring while Povich and his producers keep throwing more and more trouble into the mix.

Do this and, like Povich, you will keep your audience on the edge of their seat, shouting, cheering and maybe even booing. The one thing they won’t be doing is putting aside your writing to watch something on TV.


Author Sue Bradford Edwards blogs at One Writer's Journey.


Sioux Roslawski said...

The Maury Povich show has never been so highly elevated as this.

Perhaps if they advertised their show as a lesson in story writing, they'd get more reaction in their studio audience? (I think not, sadly.)

This post is proof that a person can take anything--even an inane television show--and spin it in a positive way.

Margo Dill said...

Sue--this post made me laugh out loud. I love it, and everything you said was SO TRUE! :)

T.K. Marnell said...

Ha! I've never thought of those daytime talk soaps as stories...but I do believe they're scripted that way.

One big difference between books and television, though, is that we don't have the benefit of a live studio audience to manipulate the reader. A lot of the tension doesn't come from the participants' problems, which are often trite by themselves, but the crowd reaction to each revelation. I'm sure they have cue words flashing up over the stage saying, "Boo!" "Cheer!" "Aww...." There's a reason the camera is constantly panning around, zeroing in on exaggerated expressions of shock or anger. Without that audience energy, those shows would be terribly awkward. Imagine the teen mamas and baby daddies in an empty white room screaming at each other, with nothing but the camera between them and the viewers at home. That's closer to the situation we have to deal with: just the words on the page and the reader on the couch.

Anonymous said...

We may not have the reaction of the audience to manipulate reader emotion but we have other "tricks of the trade." These can include:
*The specific setting
*Various sensory details
*Specifics about the characters' emotional reactions
*Verb choices
*Limiting the space through which the character can move
*Limiting the time she has to solve a problem

These are all ways we can ramp up the tension and script our own stories.


LuAnn Schindler said...

Thanks, Sue, for the insightful post. I don't care for Maury, but it's a good example of creating tension and conflict, which drive a story's plot. Unfortunately, many writers forget to add this element.

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