This is the third post in my four-part series on ANTS, my framework for understanding what a story needs to keep readers engaged. Previously, I’ve covered attachment and novelty. Now it’s time to look at the big reason why stories have a plot structure: tension.
Cultivating tension is usually one of the first and most important skills a new storyteller learns. It’s why your mentors and editors are always yelling at you to add more conflict to your story. Let’s take a quick tour of what tension is and what it needs to work.
“Tension” is the word we use for the reader’s preoccupation with whether or not something bad will happen in the story. It’s a synonym for suspense, minus the latter’s association with thrillers. Storytellers create tension by giving the protagonist problems. When we watch the protagonist struggle to solve those problems, whether by going to battle or just arguing, we call it “conflict.”
The level of tension created by a problem is determined by two factors.
How bad will the consequences be if the problem isn’t solved?
We generally call this the “stakes” of a conflict. The destruction of the world is a much higher stake than the demise of a few goldfish. Rewards for solving a problem can matter as well, but readers are more preoccupied with potential losses than gains.
However, even big losses don’t create tension unless readers care about them. That’s why some attachment is a prerequisite for tension. As long as your protagonist is liked and the stakes are important to them, you’ll probably be fine. But if your story has no tension and you can’t figure out why, ask your readers whether they want your characters to succeed. If they think your protagonist is a jerk, it’ll be much harder to create meaningful consequences.
What is the likelihood that the protagonist will face these consequences?
If solving the problem feels like a sure thing, you’ll have no tension. This is why it’s essential for your villain to feel threatening. Unfortunately, the more often the antagonist fails at their goal, the more readers will feel that the protagonist can best them without an issue. Often, the best way to avoid this is to give your antagonist early goals they can succeed at without stopping the story. You probably don’t want them to kill the protagonist, but what if they manage to steal a weapon or kidnap someone the protagonist was trying to protect?
Putting deadlines on story problems is another time-honored way of making conflicts feel like an uphill battle. If you give your protagonist a whole year to find a solution, readers will assume they’ll figure something out, even if the problem is all but impossible to solve. Similarly, if the protagonist can try to solve the problem, fail, and then try again without being any worse off, the only conclusion is that sooner or later they’ll succeed. A ticking clock ensures failed attempts always leave the protagonist with a lower chance of success.
Like novelty, tension makes stories more entertaining. Bored readers are the most obvious sign that tension has dropped too low. While a few brief lulls between conflicts can give readers a chance to catch their breath, the tension should generally rise until the climax of the story.
However, tension is different from the other ANTS in one important way: you can have too much of a good thing. By its nature, tension is stressful. Some people don’t want lots of stress in their pleasure reading, and others may look for something low tension when they’ve had a bad day. It’s also inevitable that story problems will hit closer to home for some readers. Overall, preferred level of tension is one of the biggest reader divides, so it’s important for storytellers to choose the general level of tension they want in their stories and recruit beta readers with matching tastes.
Even if you’re catering to tension-averse readers, don’t neglect your plot. While you may not want life-or-death conflicts in a low-tension story, you should still have problems with lower, more personal stakes. Higher attachment can be crucial here, because it takes more attachment to care about personal issues. To compensate for lower tension, you’ll also need much higher novelty. Even if your story is very light, no one should get bored.
There’s another reason to cultivate a strong plot structure even in a low-tension story. Your plot isn’t just for tension; it’s also essential to the last of the ANTS. Join me in September when I cover tension’s partner and opposite: satisfaction. And to see the previous ANTS posts I linked to earlier, visit Attachment, Novelty and Satisfaction.
Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.
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