I began the Christian Fiction Writers’ Clinic as a means for sharing what I’ve gleaned over the years concerning content editing. I learn best by example and like to use memorable rules to help myself remember how to avoid particular pitfalls that I’ve read in books or that have been exposed in my own writing. For years the rules have been hidden in a shared document between myself and Dana Kamstra.
These “rules,” while being helpful, can be ignored if the author desires. I never want to set something up as an unbreakable rule. I certainly have not invented the art of fiction writing. However, each of the rules are meant to be guidelines to help you stay away from troublesome areas.
You’ll find a live video within the Facebook Clinic group discussing this writing rule.
This month, we’re looking at one of the Chemistry and Tension problems.
Symptoms: Lack of tension, Reader not invested in the story, Reader not caring about what happens, Boring, Reader being able to put the book down and
forget about the story, Shallow tension
Have you ever read a book and was so drawn to the story that you couldn’t wait to pick it back up? Maybe you even thought about the characters while you were away. Or maybe you contemplated how they’d get out the jam they were in or how you’d get out if you were them.
It was a great book, wasn’t it?
Now stop and consider a book that you read where you felt just the opposite. You never thought about the characters and their problems when you weren’t reading. Maybe you even set it down for good and never regretted not knowing what happened to them.
Why is that? What makes one book so thrilling and the other so optional? What keeps you turning the pages late into the night when you know you should have already gone to bed?
Tension in real life isn’t all that pleasant. But tension in fiction … that’s the key to the entire genre.
There are a lot of different ways we authors can hiccup in the tension/chemistry department but one of the basics is simply forgetting to add conflict.
Ouch. If the entire genre hinges on great tension and we forget to add it, we’ve created something bland instead of something exciting. It’ll read like a good little girl’s diary instead of the page-turning, action-packed drama that we were hoping for.
If nothing happens … then nothing is happening.
I don’t mean to sound redundant but it really is that simple.
But what do we do about it? And how can we tell if we’ve slipped up and sorta forgot to add tension?
Here’s your answer: You bring out the rocks.
Dana is often quoting this concept to me … which proves that we all need to be reminded to keep the pot stirred and the drama bubbling. Here’s the visual for you:
Your job as the author is to chase your character up a tree, then throw rocks at them.
I’m serious! And don’t you dare feel sorry for them either!
You can’t protect your characters just because you love them. If you love them, let them suffer! Chase them up a tree (in a position where they can’t get out) and throw rocks at them (problem after problem), and in due time you’ll help them down and bind their wounds but not before you’ve made them suffer.
Making your characters suffer is your sole purpose and the reason why everyone bought a ticket to the show. It’s like showing up at a Roman Colosseum but not seeing anyone fed to the lions.
When the time is right, you’ll bring them down, bind their wounds, and lead them to their happily-ever-after.
But not yet!
Right now, you’re a troublemaker. You’re an instigator. You’re a bully with a rock and a good aim. USE IT.
Sometimes we simply forget to add conflict.
Sometimes we chase them up a tree but quickly put up a ladder and help them right back down.
Sometimes we love them and want to shelter them, so we chase them to the tree but never force them up the tree or even consider grabbing a rock.
So take inventory of your current draft. Has your character been chased up a tree and into a position where there’s no easy way out?
Have you thrown rock after rock at them when they were helpless?
Giving them one problem then fixing it for them isn’t adding tension, it’s keeping your character weak and your tension shallow. And it’s boring your readers to tears.
Tension is the one thing that the fiction genre has that no other genre can claim. Religious books, cookbooks, how-to’s, biographies … none of these are tension driven. Only in fiction will you find book after book after book with varying degrees of tension.
So doesn’t it stand to reason that if fiction was the only one to offer tension, that we’d better be using it?
Here are a couple quotes to keep in your back pocket:
“Trouble is your business; make more of it!” -James Scott Bell
“Write the tough stuff! It’s going to be great!” – Christy Gragg