When the Going Gets Slow... 7 Quick Techniques to Notch Up the Tension

All too often, a really promising beginning runs out of steam. It's the reason agents lose interest in material they've requested, editors sigh and start making notes for the revision letter, and readers stick a bookmark in the novel and forget it. Many times, it's the reason the manuscript is never finished in the first place, as the writer loses sight of the initial spark once so enticing.

Many projects fall by the wayside at this juncture, but those willing to perservere can find a way to stoke the fire heating up the story. Here are a few possibilities I've used in the past when things slow down:

1. If your protagonist's goal has a pressing time limit, shorten it.
2. Remove your protagonist's "crutch character," forcing your hero to stand completely alone. Many a best friend has died in the service of this cause, but there are many other possibilities, including a betrayal, or a perceived betrayal.
3. Blow the story's original goal out of the water, forcing the protagonist to regroup and the reader to reassess what the story's really all about. This can be a risky choice, but if done properly, it's refreshingly surprising.
4. Make the consequences of the character's failure more severe, more personal, or more widespread than originally believed. Have the consequences impact (or threaten to impact) the innocent.
5. If you're tempted to whip out a "magic amulet" to make life easier for the hero, try giving it to the story's villain instead.
6. Strengthen the antagonist.
7. Allow your protagonist to make a poor choice. (How else will she learn enough to complete her arc?)

Do you have any favorite tips for escalating the tension near the middle of the story? Have you read any reversals that really made you sit up and take notice?


Joni Rodgers said…
I've been studying a few great screenplays lately, and as I read this advice, I was pinging on how well it's worked in so many great stories. Excellent advice, as always.
Mylène said…
Answering your question, Colleen: this week I introduced an unexpected vulnerability in an antagonist. Not a "weakness"; more like an unexpected "longing." I liked the piquancy this added to the character and to the plot. But then again, "piquancy" is one of my favorite words in the English language--so I'll do just about anything to score it. ;-)
LOL on "piquancy." And I love complex, well-motivated antagonists rather than the kind who apparently woke up one morning and decided, for no particular reason, to be evil.

Every character's the hero of his/her own story.
Nancy J. Parra said…
Thanks for the great tips~ :)
Teri Thackston said…
Great ideas. I particularly liked #2 and #5.
Thanks for stopping by, ladies!
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff has a great post on the second act that complements this: http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/2010/04/plants-and-payoffs.html

I love the idea of blowing the original goal out of the water, although you're right that that is risky. It's funny, because I'm actually struggling with a lot of this right now, in working out the kinks of my story arc.

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