Ramping up the tension

tensionSome people thrive on conflict. I am not one of them. Actual and imagined confrontations leave my stomach in knots. Although conflict avoidance can make the real world more pleasant, it is the kiss of death in fiction, which requires tension and a story arc to keep readers turning pages. This is a problem for me, as I find myself instinctively wanting my key characters to face only the most minor inconveniences.


Five chapters into my book, I’m discovering that the most interesting characters are the minor ones struggling with internal conflicts. Hmmm. Time to revise and throw some roadblocks in front of my major character.

Now, instead of having two weeks to research and write her story, Janelle has one. But she’s running out of time and has learned no more about why Paul, the accused hometown bioterrorist, carried out the attacks than she knew before she arrived in Clinton. However, she’s discovering that in spite of the evidence, a lot of people think he’s been made the fall guy, so the case can be closed quickly. She’s also finding out that no one really knows Paul – at least so far.

She has to go back to her editor and beg for another week. She doesn’t have a story and needs the extra time to see what she can learn. She gets it, but her job is on the line. How much of what people tell Janelle can she take at face value? The reader knows; can she figure it out?

As my story progresses, I’m constantly rethinking the plot. Already minor characters play larger roles than I’d originally envisioned. Since my plots are character-driven, their layers of complexity impact how I write about their interactions with those around them. Too often, I become so fascinated with these people of my imagination and their internal conflicts that I write into the weeds. I have to control my impulse of making understanding them the end, rather than the means of moving the plot forward. Last week, I deleted about 2,500 words that gave way too much irrelevant information about one of them. This week, I’ll reluctantly go back and kill my darlings – sentences and paragraphs I really, really like but are inconsequential in the scheme of things.

So, it’s back to my oft-changed outline to insert some conflict and raise the tension. I don’t think Janelle will thank me for it, but my readers will.

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