Balancing Extreme Tension With a Dose of Realism

by Kay Springsteen

Cooking is a balancing act.You have to measure the ingredients so they blend into the perfect flavor, and then you have to set the cooking time and temperature and choose the correct method of cooking…

Writing is also a balancing act. You have to set the scene, the characters, the plot. And you have to write for the balance of the Big Three that acquisition editors look for these days – goals, motivation, and conflict. Want your story to be one readers won’t put down until the last page is turned? Heighten the tension in the GMC of your characters.

The opportunities for creating conflict in a story are limited only by a writer’s imagination.  Conflict creates tension and tension returns the favor to create more conflict. However, tension needs to come about in a natural fashion, rising from and subsequently interfering with the goals and motivation or it will not be believable. Additionally, characters require convincing reasons why they muddle through instead of giving up once those circumstances of conflict occur. Readers must also be given the tools to understand and believe the reason why opposing characters are thrown together and why they are kept together during subsequent conflict. Each character’s external goals and motivation must be woven together by circumstances so characters cannot avoid the conflicts being tossed their way. The internal motivation of characters—their mental and emotional makeup—must be such that it is impossible for them to give up no matter what happens. Conflict should be driven by tension between the characters as well as outside of the characters – mostly through the primary characters, but also through each secondary character. Each character must have a reason to be in the novel, which means each character must have his/her own GMC, however small a role those may play to the novel itself.

It is often the little things that advance the story. Though it often is, tension does not have to be overt (i.e., with characters who are at odds with seemingly no room for compromise and thus they constantly argue). Characters don’t have to act like they’re in elementary school where boys hate girls. In adulthood, people tend to compromise or avoid each other rather than continue sniping, and if they cannot avoid each other, they will at least behave in a civil manner. Those who do not, rarely get beyond the “I hate you” stage to a point of civility, so going forward to affection and falling in love isn’t a logical progression of events – particularly when going from “I hate everything about you” to a mad passionate embrace. Thus, constant bickering that leads to attraction isn’t always believable because one wonders how they get past the anger and criticism to discover they like each other after all.

Sometimes subtle conflicts seem more realistic, a male with a sense of over protectiveness and a female with a need to make her own decisions might find themselves at odds because he insists on driving her everywhere. That’s a setup for overt tension. But tension can present in the fact that he’s a neat freak and she squeezes his toothpaste from the middle of the tube, which irritates him until he erupts in anger. The author should strive for believable realism BUT needs to balance this with interest in the characters and their dilemma. Things like mundane chores, basics of self-care, walking the dog should only be included in depth when they add to the story in the form of characterization or provide the readers with clues/foreshadowing of upcoming events, and even then, shouldn’t be overdone to the point of becoming boring. The trick is to balance a taste of routine realism with a dose of grandiosity to make the characters and story larger than life. To find the tension in the little things along the way that builds up or perhaps adds to already established larger bits of tension. Each scene should have some sort of GMC, even if it’s about toothpaste.

~Kay Springsteen – find me on Amazon

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