Monday, May 03, 2021

My Seven Rules to Raise the Heat in a Novel

 I'm halfway through teaching my first-ever Advanced Creative Writing course.  Most of the students are returnees from my earlier classes and it’s a treat to see them all again.  They’re all outstanding writers.  

Tonight, I'm presenting my list of seven rules to raise the heat in a novel. 

A good book is like a well-prepared meal.  A lot of key ingredients go into it—relatable characters, a believable plot, a satisfying story arc, evil villains, and the occasional plot twist.

But like when you’re cookin’, ya’ gotta bring the heat.

Storytelling is characters under stress. But, keep in mind, there should be an ebb and flow of tension.  Non-stop stress will wear a reader out.  Too little and you become boring.

Here are my seven rules of building tension in your novel.

1)There should be internal conflict within your characters.  And that’s not only just for your protagonist and his friends, but for your villains as well.  Internal conflict can take many forms—alcohol or drug abuse, fear, PTSD, a fear of spiders—really almost any phobia will do. 

Want to amp it up a little?  Add a physical hurdle for your protagonist.  Jeffery Deaver turned his hero, Lincoln Rhyme, into a quadriplegic. If that’s not taking it to the extreme, I don’t know what is.

2) There has to be believable and engaging characters with competing goals. The simplest example of this is the bad guy wants to kill the good guy and the good guy wants to keep breathing.  

Sometimes the competing goals aren’t so clear cut.  In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s goal is to catch a serial killer.  To do so, she needs the help of Hannibal Lecter.  At first it seems Hannibal’s goal is to simply use Clarice as a distraction from the boredom of his jail cell.  Then his goal appeared to be just how far into Clarice’s head he could crawl, like a spider digging deeper and deeper into her psyche. Ultimately, his real goal was to escape prison.  

3) Create secondary sources of tension.  We see these in our personal lives all the damned time.  

Think of some of the daily sources of secondary tension you might experience.  Your boss has a bad day and takes it out on you.  You’re late for a job interview and you get a flat tire. You see charges on your credit card statement that you didn’t make.

In and of itself, relatively minor annoyances.  But add it up and mix it into your story, and it ramps up the stress.

4) The main story conflict must be crucial to your character. In the film Fatal Attraction, Dan Gallagher is married to Beth but has an affair with a female magazine editor by the name of Alex.  Dan, thinking the affair was a one-off, is ready to forget about the fling.  Alex, crazy as a bedbug on meth, isn’t ready to forget anything and obsessively stalks Dan.  

The conflict here heats up when Dan thinks his marriage is in danger.  Then it grows when he realizes that his life could be in danger.  It escalates yet again, when he comes to grips that both his wife and daughter’s lives are in danger.  

Oh, FYI, if there’s a boiling pot on your stove and your pet bunny is missing, don’t look in the pot.

5) Let the tension ebb and flow.  The best thriller writers are the ones who take you on that rollercoaster ride but slow it down from time to time to let the reader catch his breath. And just when you’ve let your guard down…

6) Bam, you raise the stakes and keep raising them. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, his protagonist is left for dead on Mars after his team blasts off during a dust storm to head back to earth.  Using malfunctioning equipment, his cunning, and knowledge of science, the hero manages to eke out an existence, thinking he can last the four years until the rescue rocket can retrieve him.

But Weir suddenly raises the stakes, throwing fearsome obstacles into his hero’s path, one after the other, until it appears all hope is exhausted.  Read the book, see the movie, it’s a nail biter right up until the end. 

7) Make it a race against time. You’ve laid out the conflict, you’ve thrown in secondary conflicts, you’ve raised the stakes, now you give the protagonist a deadline.  And if the conflict isn’t resolved by then there’s deadly consequences. 

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we visit a house full of people on a remote island and one of them is a killer.  One by one, they’re being murdered.  The ferry that will take them off the island doesn’t arrive until tomorrow.  Can they survive the night?  There’s nothing that will raise tension like a ticking clock.

Writing a book requires many ingredients—engaging characters, a thoughtful plot, artful descriptions.  But in the end, ya’ gotta’ bring the heat. 

2 comments:

Tom Saunders said...

Great writing tips!
Thanks for sharing!
Tom Saunders

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I agree. Great tips, and I need to check my historical thriller in progress against them. Thank you.