1. Peter Hall
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    Peter Hall New Member

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    How to maintain a rising level of tension/conflict?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Peter Hall, Sep 29, 2013.

    Hi All,

    First post so this might be quite a basic question, but I'd like some advice on story development. It's fantasy and my main character is on a quest - suffering setbacks and generally having a hard time - but I don't feel that there is a rising level of tension/conflict - more a static level where one setback such as an attack by hostiles is merely substituted for another setback later on.

    Are there any simple plot devices to naturally increase the conflict. Does the story need to be broadened out to increase the stakes - and if so how can this be done within the context of the story where he doesn't have much contact with the outside world?

    Many thanks

    Pete
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My first thought is that he could be on a deadline, so that every delay adds to the risk of failing and he has to take greater and greater risks to get things done faster. I don't know what the deadline is for, but presumably something dreadful will happen if he doesn't make it.
     
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  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I would add to ChickenFreak's excellent suggestion by saying each 'setback' should have consequences which make it more difficult for him to achieve his quest. Either they remove a way forward—think LOTR where the blizzard forces the Fellowship to abandon the 'safer' route over the mountains, and down into the incredibly unsafe mines—or they create burdens or handicaps which your hero has to cope with afterwards. (A wound, a bad companion, a lack of funds, his horse died, etc.) If you couple these kinds of lasting hardships with a deadline, like ChickenFreak suggested, you'll definitely ramp up the tension.
     
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  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    You could also portray the setbacks as not just delaying or frustrating his progress, but also subjecting him to increased personal danger and risk of life. Thinking Indiana Jones, here.
     
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  5. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    • Are there any simple plot devices to naturally increase the conflict. Does the story need to be broadened out to increase the stakes - and if so how can this be done within the context of the story where he doesn't have much contact with the outside world?

    In effect, you've just said, "Hey guys, I want to know all the factors that make a scene and a story work...can you make it quick?"

    It's great that you recognize the problem. The vast majority of hopeful writers suffer the same problem, but never recognize that the problem exists, so you're way ahead of the curve. The problem is that like any profession the craft of fiction writing is filled with, "This is how to handle such and such, except in...and modified by...and in this case..."

    But if we haven't learned the three things a reader wants to know on entering any scene (Who am I, where am I, and what's going on), will we make use of them? If we don't know the structure of a scene and how it differs from a scene on stage or screen, will we know to end one with disaster, and why?

    What I'm suggesting is that because you may be missing some of the nuts-and-bolts issues, you're not taking advantage of the available tools. Our English teachers, who were training us to be competent members of the work, force taught us only nonfiction compositional techniques, so that doesn't help. And our storytelling skills are performance skills that can't work on the page.

    What that means is that we need more than a basic education in the general skills of writing. We need a few tricks-of-the-trade and some backstage knowledge we don't get in our own fiction reading.

    I know that's not the answer you were hoping for, but if we could learn what we need through a few questions on a writers site we'd all be successful writers, right?

    The good news is that learning the craft of writing for the printed word is both interesting and fun—or at least it is if you're meant to be a writer. There are lots of things that, once pointed out make you slap your forehead and say, "Why didn't I see that for myself! And, it's cheap. Hit your local library and check out, Jack Bickham's, Scene and Structure, or his, 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes.
     
  6. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    I usually of think of this issue in video game terms.

    In a video game, your MC gets attacked all the time by random battles that don't affect anything but your experience bar and unless your book is a video game parody, it doesn't work.

    Each encounter or set back has to change something or be meaningful as a whole or to a character in the story.
    In a sense, why bother writing the scene if it doesn't do anything?

    So, if your character is on his way forward but a group of bandits chase after him, you gotta ask yourself why is this happening?

    Is your character gonna defeat them and learn of his own abilities? Get captured and taken somewhere else? Saved by someone and makes a new ally? His belongings stolen making it hard/impossible to finish the quest? Or whatever else you can think of.

    Maybe being attacked reveals to the character he is in more danger than he thinks or maybe it could be used as introduction to a certain subplot.
     
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  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I don't agree with your reply. I think I'm doing quite well with my story but I found myself interested in the replies because I related his question to someone who needs to learn a particular thing: Just putting roadblock after roadblock in front of your protag does not move the story forward.

    That's not the same as the question we get around here frequently where a member asks, "is this a good story", when all they have is an idea.

    Insight comes in little steps sometimes. Peter's asking how to climb a single step, not how to write an entire story with just an idea. And it's a common step writers find themselves facing all the time. I know not to just put roadblocks in front of my character, but at the same time I found CF's, Jan's, Ed's, and AMP's replies all fairly useful.

    It doesn't mean your advice to use all those other techniques to become a better writer wasn't good advice. It was. And you obviously took time to answer the OP, which is a good thing. But nonetheless I assessed the OP question a little differently than you did.
     
  8. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    • I related his question to someone who needs to learn a particular thing

    It doesn't work that way. Remember, they offer four year courses in professional fiction writing. It's complex, difficult, and as hard to achieve competency in as any other profession. There are no simple answers or stand-alone issues. And neither our own reading or the general skill of writing we learned in our primary schooling relates, other then peripherally, to writing fiction for the printed word.

    We're taught that a scene is the action that takes place in one setting. And that's true on stage and film. It's not true for fiction for the printed word. And unless we understand why, and the elements of a scene on the page, there is no way in hell that we're going to understand the role of escalating tension, or how to manage it. There is no one trick or technique to growing tension, there are dozens. It's related to the scene-goal, a necessary part of a scene that the vast majority of new writers aren't even aware exists. And how can you use the tool you're unaware of?

    I don't usually push my own articles, but here's one that might clarify what I mean. Bear in mind that to answer that simple "particular thing" you mentioned, in really sketchy terms, took 1200 words, far more than we might provide in a post.
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I will gratefully peruse your blog at some point, I've noted the link.

    How about clarifying your position for me. Would you cut and paste that answer to every inquiry in this forum? If not, what makes this OP question different?
    And would you discount the short replies besides your own as totally inadequate since they don't consist of a university level essay on the subject?

    I have an oversimplified view of the question: Just putting roadblock after roadblock in front of your protag does not move the story forward. As such, I found thread replies useful as I've already noted. A writer learns a step at a time.
     
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  10. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    • Would you cut and paste that answer to every inquiry in this forum?

    I don't cut and paste anything. You seem in a combative mood today. Have I insulted you in some way?

    • And would you discount the short replies besides your own as totally inadequate since they don't consist of a university level essay on the subject?

    I have no idea of why you feel it necessary to attack me. The question was asked and I responded as I felt proper, in the number of words that seemed necessary. I neither responded to nor "discounted" anyone else's response. Those words are yours, not mine. The answers I give are, basically, what you would get were you to read pretty much any book on writing for the printed word. I don't usually give citation, but if you like I will.

    If you disagree with what I posted then let's discuss it. That is what the forums are for.
     
  11. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wow, I couldn't think of an easier question.

    Some things you could do.

    1. If the quest involves curing a disease, curse, disaster, or some equivalent that progressively gets worse, then each day that passes, you have more tension.
    Ex. My body is decaying until I reach the holy spring. Day 1, I lose my left foot, now I'm moving slower. Day 2, I lose my arm, now I can't fight the dangers in front of me. Day 3, I lose my you-know-what, and there goes the romance usually associated with a fantasy.
    2. If your characters are dimensional, their personal agendas can work to hinder achieving the goal, creating more problems that compact one another, creating greater issues.
    Ex- Characters care more about leadership than conquering the quest, leading in conflict between two people (ala Fellowship of the Ring). Then, one of the guys forms an alliance with a shady party to help give him the upper hand. This alliance makes the original task ten times as difficult.
    3. The antagonist gets smarter/ stronger after each failed attempt.
     
  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Ginger.

    While studying books, blogs, and going on courses may be helpful, that won't make a writer of you. In fact, you can become so hamstrung by all the expert's 'do's and don't's', that the stories you churn out sound stilted and artificial.

    No way around it. You've got to dig in there and write. And these little 'eureka' moments you have along the way will make you a better writer. Little moments like: Wow, if each obstacle makes things a lot WORSE (not just bothersome) for my progagonist, I'll really ramp up the tension here.

    You don't have to go to school to learn writing skills like this. Learning by doing makes writing fun—and it's a great way to leave your Expository Writing teacher (bless her little cotton socks) behind!
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I've already said I disagreed with your post and I'm definitely trying to say so with the utmost respect, not with any intention to attack or do battle.

    I didn't think Peter in the OP said this at all:
    And I don't agree with this:
    I have a master's degree, but in a field nowhere close to writing or language arts. I'm pretty sure I've acquired the skill to write the fiction novel I'm currently writing without an English degree, and I've done so in a relatively short period of time (two years and I'm competent but still learning).

    Perhaps there was something in a few words in the OP you honed in on, while I focused on something else? All peter said was his action scenes weren't building tension. I didn't read anything else there that said, give me a quick solution that will make me a writer.
     

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