How to add tension to your writing

Photo by wildphotons

No one likes an impotent story. Even worse: an impotent story that thinks it's all that in the sack.

Of course, no one used these words today at The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference I attended, because they're all too nice. (Exception: presenter and author Steve Watkins, who joked about condoms and gave us tips on how to kill characters.) But it's basically what we were talking about: impotent writing.

The good news is, you can bring back the magic by adding tension. Not sure how to do that? Check out this handy primer courtesy of literary agent Linda Pratt, one of the presenters at today's SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference.*

* My first real SCBWI event. I'm on my way to fame, fortune, and endless school visits, baby!

Enjoy these helpful notes distilled from my obsessive nerd-like furious scribbling during her presentation. And then work hard on coming up with creepy, incongruous writing metaphors of your own. Trust me, it adds tension.

1. Diagnosis that tension is indeed missing.
* Get feedback from others whether your work lacks tension.

* Keep in mind that agents and editors have different ways of sharing that information. There's no uniform vocabulary for this important story element. So you're more likely to hear phrases such as "too soft," "quiet," "I wasn't vested," "or "I didn't connect emotionally."

* Note: You can have a soft narrative arc and still incorporate tension. Hard action does NOT equal tension (more on this later).

2. Accept your diagnosis.
* "We don't want to hear it, especially when we think it might be true." [Sing it, sister.]

* Linda evaluates books by current market standards, and one such standard right now is tension. So keep that in mind as you're writing.

* Don't try to find example of stories without tension to justify your own. Just fix it.

3. Adjust to your new condition.
* Ask yourself, "How am I going to do things differently [in my story]?"

* Understand what tension even is -- a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.

* Create empathy "without having feelings and thoughts communicated explicity." This means NOT saying, "He got mad." Show, don't tell.

Linda also pointed out that different genres have unique pitfalls, and shared technique-rich toolboxes for overcoming them:

Pitfalls: Picture Books :(
* When the lesson drives your story. If your primary goal is to preach to the child, your story will fall flat. Clear, straight lines lack tension.

* When you forget plot. Remember, you need conflict and resolution to add some zing.

Toolbox: Picture Books :)
* Remember and practice that less is more.

* Text is most effective when it sets up illustration. The reader's brain should anticipate the illustration.

* Use page turns to highlight tension. One tip: Dummy (read: mock up) 32 pages of scrap paper to test out the text placement.

* Start with the story. Avoid starting from the point of teaching.

Pitfalls: Young Adult Novels :(
* When you protect your characters. You're probably already planted the seeds in the characterization and plot to kill them. Be gutsy; pull the trigger. Allow things to happen to them.

* When you confuse action for tension. Great example of an author/book who strikes the critical balance (says Linda): Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Again, you don't need to explode buildings or kill characters to create drama. Focus on crafting empathetic characters. Be selective about who receives the reader's emotional investment. This will give you more freedom in whose decisions/actions drive the tension, and the story overall will resonate more with the reader.

Toolbox: Young Adult Novels :)
* Step outside of your work. Chart the character arcs. Are the characters changing, growing, maturing? If the line's not budging, introduce some new traits or events to incite change.

* Play "ifstory." Also known as "keep asking what if." These two little words can keep opening up new brainstorms and new possibilities for your narrative and character arcs.

* Embrace character flaws. Perfect characters are wooden characters. Give them a trait you don't like so much to force different actions/reactions within the plot.

* "Feel it." Stuck on a particular emotion in a scene? Forget the novel for a sec, and write separately about a time you felt as the character did. In writing out that memory, you can reconnect to your character's feelings in a similar situation.

Done all this, and you're still stuck? Break this technical glass in case of emergency:
* Reread books and scenes that accomplish what you're trying to accomplish.

* To quote Linda: "Art is about stealing." Reverse-engineer what works, and duplicate the process in your work.

* Once you can articulate hits and flops in other work, you can better execute your own. Bone up on your editorial understanding.

Writers and editors out there: Any tips to share with our viewing audience? Oh, and thanks for a fun and informative day, SCBWI! More craft-oriented posts to come based on today's lessons.