I’ve started back into writing one of my novels
which has been on hold for a while. It had issues. No, it had one BIG issue: I
did not care enough about what was happening. It lacked tension.
Uh-oh. These are my characters I’m talking about,
this is my carefully constructed plot. If I don’t care, it’s a dead certainty
no-one else will.
I’m starting to get my head around it now and realise I’d made
a very simple mistake. My characters are on a mission and there are bad guys
placing various challenges and obstacles in their way - it’s intended to be a
kind of thriller. What I hadn’t realised was that a reader is not going to care
much about completion of the mission as such. It is not enough to present a
puzzle as though the reader will automatically care about its solution. Readers, I believe,
want to care about the characters.
When I thought about it, in successful thrillers it
is rarely the plot I remember, it’s the people: James Bond springs to mind, or Jason
Bourne. Quiller, Smiley, and the wonderful Sherlock Holmes. Okay, that’s
enough, I’m showing my age.
So first I have to connect my reader to the
characters. Then I have to show how much the mission means to them. If completion of the mission is bound up with some
personal desire of the characters, so much the better.
Another error was to think that tension is bound up
with action. I recently had the opportunity to read one of Barb’s
novels – a romance so totally outside my genre - which opened my eyes to
another way of maintaining tension. From the start of the novel, she places her
characters into a scene of intense emotional conflict. There are clues as to
the reason for the conflict but the exact details are held back from the reader,
to be gradually revealed through backstory. This creates tension in the reader
as they wonder the reasons behind the characters’ behaviour and satisfaction
when the backstory is finally revealed.
Here's an inspiring piece (sorry I can't get this to come up as a link), which suggests
four ways to maintain tension: change, twists, dialogue and revelations:
I would also suggest another source of tension: frustration. This can
work in any genre – let the reader understand what it is the character most
needs or desires (be it completion of her mission or winning the heart of that
special man) and then frustrate her every attempt to get it.
Approaching the novel with these ideas in mind, I can
see how my two protagonists might play off each other to gradually reveal their
strengths, insecurities and emotional baggage. With a bit of thought, I might be able to connect that into the plot. Suddenly I’m starting to get
excited and feel that maybe I can produce a decent novel from this story after
all (crossed fingers).