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.