Friday, December 11, 2020

What's at Stake? How to Ratchet Up the (Necessary) Tension in Your Book

Stories tell about dilemmas--someone facing a problem, someone learning, someone solving a mystery, someone growing. Dilemma is that question or quest your book addresses, small or large. Whether it's the best method of growing a bonsai garden or learning who killed the victim in a murder mystery or figuring out a new identity after a great loss, dilemma, also known as the dramatic arc, forms the path your reader travels through your book.

Without strong dilemma, there’s no story. Another way to look at this is to ask the question: What's at stake in my story?

What's at stake applies to two levels of your book: the outer story and the inner story. Here's an example from a few years ago, told to me by my student Chris.

Chris was writing the story of her grandmother’s life, but she wasn’t happy
with the slow pace of her story. She came to my storyboarding class and got a chance to both brainstorm the ideas she had and refine them. Chris’s storyboard showed many lovely moments in her grandmother's life. But few showed conflict.

Absolutely, her grandmother lived an interesting life, well worth writing about. But her story, mostly preserved in family letters seemed too perfect, Chris told me.

One great technique I learned early in my writing career is the image board. Many published writers use this, Sue Monk Kidd, of The Secret Life of Bees, being the most well-known, at least to me. Kidd started her image board for that novel with one picture and the entire story grew from it. I suggested Chris try an image board of her grandmother’s life, what she knew of it. Her grandmother had died when Chris was nine, but she’d been Chris’s primary caretaker until then.

Chris went through the letters again and old family photos. Then she put these documents aside and turned to her intuition.

She gathered a stack of magazines and spent an hour tearing out any images that spoke to her of her grandmother’s life. Then she arranged them on a large sheet of paper. This is when the central dilemma began to reveal itself.

For some reason Chris pasted a beautiful garden next to a car accident, then a fallen bird near a sunny kitchen. Why the opposing images? She tried to recall conversations about her grandmother’s past, before her marriage. Were there secrets she didn’t know about?

Chris decided to call up an elderly aunt and interview her. Chris learned that her grandmother had given birth to an illegitimate child when she was very young, and that child was given up for adoption. This explained the persistent sadness Chris always felt from her grandmother, and the disjointed collage images suddenly made sense. Chris now knew the central dilemma of her grandmother’s story and how she could write her book around it.

When she told me about this, it seemed amazing--but it's also happened in my books and in others'. We have to dig to find out what's at stake; it sometimes is not apparent when we begin our book journey.

External and Internal Dilemma
Most dilemmas arise from external circumstances thrust upon a person. An external dilemma nearly always lead to an internal dilemma, and if you have both, it strengthens the book even more. Chris’s grandmother was forced to give up her baby—an external dilemma that Chris learned about from her elderly aunt.

But her grandmother's life-long feelings of guilt were the internal dilemma, which brought on the persistent sadness and colored her every day. Unresolved conflict always festered beneath all the gardening, cooking, and bird-watching that her grandmother described in her letters.

Our jobs, as writers, is to sleuth this out. Some call this the wound--a past event that causes the conflict today.

Holding your characters or narrator in pleasant circumstances does not a story make. But writing dilemma requires us to tolerate risk, deal with conflict—even if it’s only on the page.

Here's a short writing exercise that can help you decide what's at stake, then ratchet up your story tension by exploring it more deeply.

Make a list of potential conflicts in your book. What kinds of trouble might people get themselves into?

If you’re writing fiction or memoir, list desires and difficulties for each of your main characters.

For nonfiction (such as how-to books), make a list of possible problems that readers might encounter and how your book solves or addresses them.

Then pick one problem and free write about it for 20 minutes. Allow the nonlinear side of your creative self to explore it.

If you want, create a scene or section in your book where someone faces this problem. What happens?

It's often helpful, after you try the exercise, to reflect on how it went, for you. Did you notice anything in your own body as you wrote about conflict? Tense shoulders? Headache?

Sometimes, it's hard for writers to bring conflict to the page because they have to experience it themselves en route. And after this past year, who needs more? But it continues to be an essential part of storytelling.

I find writing conflict a kind of catharsis. It can release tension instead of creating more, if I put those body sensations into my characters.

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