I’m not a risk taker. I’m not drawn to danger. I always look before I leap. My prudence has brought me a pleasant and happy life. But pleasant and happy lives, however great for living, do not make great fiction. So, when I am writing, I have to fight my own instincts to do things the careful way. My characters are not my children who need to be protected. What they really need is a spark of danger to get their story going.
I have been working on a sequence in my work in progress that I thought would be lovely and enjoyable, but instead it was stagnant and just plain dull. I finally realized that I was being too careful with my characters. Instead of bringing them conflict, I was working to protect them.
The problem wasn’t obvious. Over the course of the entire novel, I introduce plenty of difficult circumstances, emotional trauma, and near-death experiences. But on a scene-to-scene level, I tended to mitigate those troubles instead of exacerbating them. As a result, I undermined the conflict and tension of the story as a whole.
It was actually a tweet from Samantha Shannon, author of the Bone Season books, that made me pay better attention to the little ways a writer can increase conflict within a scene:
Me: God, Paige is having a rough time in this scene, wow
Me: … I should make it rain so she’s also cold
— Samantha Shannon (@say_shannon) April 19, 2017
Yes things were bad for Paige in the context of the entire story arc, but Shannon upped the ante just a bit with some rain and cold. That little tweet lodged in my mind, and as I stared at a scene that should be interesting but wasn’t, I realized it was a technique I should use in my own writing.
I thought of conflicts ranging from small (the main character trips and falls in the mud) to large (he is attacked by drug dealers he’d tried to screw over). In a few hundred words, a sequence that had been going nowhere suddenly gained focus, interest, and direction. I accomplished a number of scene goals, and made the story much more interesting for readers and for myself.
What are some small ways you can increase the stakes for your characters to ratchet up the tension of your story?