Thoughts on Writing – Creating Tension

In my previous post about what a serial episode needs, one of the key elements I mentioned was having tension and/or conflict. Each episode needs to have some kind of tension, or else the story will be boring.

Often times we add conflict to a story by adding action. But that’s not always what creates tension (and action scenes can be boring if the stakes aren’t right for the character involved). At times, I’ve struggled in my edits of The Multiverse Chronicles to see what is missing. In some cases, it’s the lack of scenery details. In other cases, the characters aren’t interacting properly. In yet others, there’s a lack of tension, as I discovered in one of the recent episodes I edited.

In the first part of that episode, Trish, a cadet in the Queen’s Royal Army, is riding a cart towards the camp where she will be stationed for the next six months. She has a chat with the driver, but everything is peaceful.

Too peaceful.

So I delved deeper into the scene. There needed to be some tension involved, or the scene would fall flat. Upon looking closer, I realized there was plenty of tension to be had. The tension starts with Trish. She’s not just a cadet, she’s a second-chance cadet. An earlier mishap got her dishonorably discharged. She still feels guilty for the incident, but she’s determined to prove that she will make a great rider. But, compounding the problem, she wasn’t the best student to begin with (she didn’t think pterosaurs would be that difficult to ride), and she’s prideful. By examining the scene through Trish’s eyes (What is she worrying about? What does she think of the driver?), the tension starts to develop.

So I built up the relationship between her and the driver (who unintentionally makes a major jab at her pride), showed her in a world where the details lend to uncertainty, and watched the tension rise.

(Note, this scene may change in the final version of this story.)

Example:

 The cart ahead of them swayed, sending its recruits wincing against the frame, and Trish braced herself for another jolt. The cart lurched and the young driver next to her yelped under his breath.

 (Already we know that Trish isn’t in the most comfortable situation. The stage is being set.)

 

Mr. Ó Riagán was lanky and pale—made more pale by his flame-orange hair and prominent freckles—and he sported a bright pink sunburn anywhere that wasn’t covered. Trish guessed he wasn’t more than eighteen years old, given his baby face, but he still donned the crimson uniform of Her Royal Army.

(The driver seems young. This will come back later.)

 

He drew back the reins and slowed the horses. “Easy there, Norwich,” he crooned in a soft Irish accent. “You’re going to break your leg if you hit one of those holes directly.”

 (Another problem… a horse breaking its leg isn’t good. Not a major hindrance, but it’s now something the main character could worry about.)

 

The mare nearest to him shook her head as if to protest. In fact, Trish got the distinct impression that she was more likely to break his leg if he didn’t give her a little more lead. He frowned uncertainly and loosened the reins a bit.

(Now we see Ó Riagán being a bit unsure of himself, at least in Trish’s mind, due to his earlier mentioned age.)

 

“So…” The guy glanced at Trish, licked his lips nervously, then went back to watching the roads. “You’re the one who can control the rogue?”

(He’s trying to make conversation…)

 

Trish blinked, surprised that he’d said anything. He hadn’t spoken more than a mumbled “hi” to her until now. (Apparently he hasn’t been very talkative.) She turned to their cargo behind her, the rogue pterosaur. The creature slept peacefully, drugged so that the trip wouldn’t be too stressful. The other drakes flew overhead, but since Trish wasn’t a trained pterosaur rider, this one had to be brought in by cart. (A reference back to how she was able to re-enlist, and a stab at the fact that Trish isn’t trained to ride yet).

 

With that in mind, Trish wasn’t sure how Colonel Pearson planned to handle her training. Her deployment had been sudden.

(This is all happening a bit fast for her.)

 

Still, she nodded to the young man and smiled fondly at the sleeping pterosaur. “You could say I can control her, but I think that’s because she likes me.”

 

The young man’s green eyes lit up in awe. “You have a familiar bond?”

 

“A what?” Trish frowned. She wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

(More uncertainty on her part.)

 

He blinked. “You don’t know about familiar bonds?”

 

Trish shook her head.

 

“Oh, I’m sure the colonel will explain when he has the chance.” The young man grinned. “I would try, but I’m afraid I’d butcher the explanation.”

 

“Butcher the explanation?”

(She’s trying to get information, but he’s not giving it.)

 

“Yeah… I graduated from the beastmasters’ academy in Oxford, but—”

 

“Wait. You went to Oxford?”

(Guy who looks younger than her went to prestigious academy)

 

“Yeah, well…” He scratched the back of his neck, sheepish. Trish hadn’t thought his sun burnt cheeks could get any redder, but they did. “The instructors said I was gifted. I started using beast mastery when I was eight.”

 

Trish stared at him. “You were eight?” Here she thought she’d been special, given the strength of her beast mastery. But she’d started showing her powers when she was thirteen, along with most the other people who had powers.

 

Not nearly so young.

(And now she’s feeling a bit dejected because this guy is obviously more gifted than her. Earlier episodes revealed her prideful tendencies.)

 

Mr. Ó Riagán nodded enthusiastically. “I liked to scare my older sister when she was reading. I’d have Jesse—that was our terrier—sneak up behind her and bark real loud.” He chuckled. “I was such a twerp.”

 

Trish forced a smile. “So what do you do now? Are you a rider, a pack master…?”

(She’s trying to change the conversation…)

 

“General Buford and Ruger are the pack masters for the wolves. I’m the head assistant for Lady Akeyo Kaburu. She’s the beasts’ caretaker.” He puffed out his chest with pride. “Just call her Lady Akeyo, though. She doesn’t like formalities. Not unless she doesn’t like you. By the way, I’m Sean. Do you mind if I call you Trish?”

 

“Um… sure.” She wasn’t sure what to think of him quite yet, and he was… chatty.

(She’s not so sure she likes this guy… but she’s trying to withhold judgement.)

 

“Hey!” he called out to the horses. “Stop trying to aim us for the potholes!”

 

The second mare nickered, as if she were blaming Norwich, but they maneuvered cleanly around the rugged hole that the cart ahead of them hit square on.

 

Trish eyed him, amused. “Do you talk aloud to all your beasts?”

(A sort-of jab at him.)

 

Sean shrugged. “Well, sometimes. Most the soldiers don’t talk to me. Granted, these fellows don’t talk back either, but I can get their general feelings.”

 

Trish nodded sympathetically. She hadn’t gotten much chat from the other soldiers, either, though that might have had something to do with the short notice in which she’d joined and been deployed to this particular station.

(And now they’ve found common ground. The tension has shifted from her dealing with Ó Riagán to her dealing with the other soldiers.)

By adding the details of the jolting wagon and the uncertain road, we’ve added scenery details to the world that enhances the tension. Those scenery details also lead to the characterization of Ó Riagán, who thereby gets into an in-depth conversation with Trish, which leads to more uncertainty on her part.

There’s not a lot of action, but there’s still tension between characters.

I hope you found this post helpful. Have you read any books where the story felt flat and lacked in tension? Have you worked on any stories where you realized that conflict was missing?

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