What Makes a Compelling Story, Pt. 4

(Part One: Character Development || Part Two: History & Geography || Part Three: Culture & Economy)

Conflict

So you’ve developed your characters, answered all the important questions, and your readers love them. You’ve developed your world, made it rich and full and extremely real. What’s next?

One of my favorite points: conflict.

“But what, specifically and technically, does “great storytelling” mean? It is things like powerful inner conflict, layered plotting, tension on every page, knowing the proper technique, timing and the power of telling-not-showing (yes, you read that right), antagonist and theme development, and more.”
Donald Maass

Want your reader to keep reading? Give them tension. Give them something that needs to be resolved. Give them a problem they’ll think about, even when not reading your book.

Give them a nagging conundrum that stays in their minds even when they’ve finished reading.

a. What this DOESN’T mean

Bitchiness.

Want your reader to keep reading? Give them tension. Give them something that needs to be resolved. Give them a problem they’ll think about, even when not reading your book.

I feel the need to emphasize this point because I’m seeing it in far too many books. Tension does not mean my heroine is a bitch to everyone isn’t this cool.

No, actually, it’s not cool. (Crazy thought: if you want your character to be liked, he/she needs to be likable. I know, I’m insane. :p)

It is possible for a character to be kick-ass without just being a jerk to everybody in their lives.

b. What this DOES mean

Everything matters, and it had damn well better be resolved.

That’s really what “tension on every page” means. What your characters are doing and saying have an impact on the story. If that scene were not there, your story would be irrevocably altered – or else it’s not a needed scene.

Something has to require resolution – that’s what “moving the plot forward” refers to. It doesn’t mean everybody’s fighting all the time, or every chapter has to involve saving lives. It simply means what they’re doing matters.

It took me a while to understand this. I would write solidly “good”  pages – not too much detail, engaging characterization, visual descriptions – and they weren’t interesting.

There wasn’t anything wrong with them. They just sucked.

For me, clarity came from The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield. She made a point that rocked my literary world: if a scene can be removed without impacting anything in the plot, then you don’t need that scene.

If a scene can be removed without impacting anything in the plot, then you don’t need that scene.

It doesn’t matter how pretty it is. It doesn’t matter if it includes some little phrase you really like. Those things can be moved elsewhere – namely, into a scene that, if removed, would change everything.

Huh?

I realize this is one of those points that either clicks in your head or doesn’t, so let me try to elucidate further. Take Star Wars.

The first Star Wars movie (A New Hope – no prequels, for the love of God) was a pretty tightly-written story. Yes, it had some issues, but let’s focus on the important thing: not a single scene could have been removed from it without seriously impacting the story.

Every scene required resolution of some kind (even Luke being told he wasn’t allowed to go to university that year, which had to be rough). Every scene had an impact on the main plot.

Don’t forget that they also filmed a bunch of scenes that DID NOT MAKE THE FINAL CUT. Seriously. Click here to read about them.

Here’s an example.

Luke Skywalker is in the Tatooine desert repairing a moisture vaporator, assisted by a Treadwell droid, when he notices shining objects in the sky. With his macrobinoculars Luke sees two ships engaged in combat beyond the atmosphere. He jumps into his landspeeder. The malfunctioning Treadwell blows a fuse and is unable to follow. Luke speeds off into the desert to find his friends.

Everything matters, and it had damn well better be resolved.

Okay, so what does this establish? We already know he’s in the desert. The very opening scene makes it clear we’re in a war with spaceships. Luke wants to get involved with Life Away From Home, and we already know this from his discussions with his aunt and uncle, as well as his response to Obi Wan later. So… what does this scene do?

Nothing.

Once removed, it changed absolutely nothing in the film.

A space-battle, woo! Does it matter to the rest of the film? No? Okay, then, it’s not really tension. Luke deals with a broken-down droid. That’s tense! Except… that it has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, is never “resolved,” and unless you as the viewer were suddenly madly in love with that Treadwell robot, it wouldn’t be enough to keep you watching or turning the page.

These things aren’t real tension, and that’s why they were cut. Were they nifty? Visually stunning? Well-acted? Probably. It didn’t matter in the end.

In Conclusion

There may be other definitions of tension, but I think this one really makes it as clear as possible. If what’s happening 1. doesn’t require resolution of any kind, and 2. can be removed without impacting the rest of the story, then it doesn’t have tension.

This can include the simplest, quietest conversation between characters. It can be the simplest scene involving a young mother and her baby, and her conversation with the baby revealing her fears about the weird neighbor next door and how much her husband travels. It can, yes, include spaceship battles and dragons and food-fights, but if those conflicts don’t change anything or require resolution, then you can just let them go.

One last time. Ask this:

  1. Does it require resolution? Something that keeps people reading to see how it turns out?
  2. Can it be removed without impacting the story?

If you can answer those honestly, clearly, objectively as possible, you will have a tight, tension-filled book that keeps readers reading and thinking and talking about your story long after they’ve put it down.

We’re nearly done with this series. More to come later!

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