So many reviews so little time, not to mention my own projects (one manuscript writing, one manuscript editing), eats into a man’s time, but never let it be said that it has kept me from my duties as a blogger. Grab a seat, folks, and make sure to sit on the edge of it because today’s Plot and Motivation is going to look at dramatic tension. Oh My God Drama!
So, Starving Author, what is dramatic tension and why should we care? Well, as most in the writing business know, dramatic tension is excitement and anticipation a person feels before the resolution of some action. In the case of writing, substitute ‘reader’ for ‘person’ and ‘some action’ with ‘a plot point’ and you’re good. In other words, it’s that anticipation and feeling built up that keep the reader reading and looking forward to the resolution of a plot point, be it a subplot or the main plot line. In essence, dramatic tension is one of the greatest motivating factors to read a piece of sequential fiction.
There are, in my eyes, two major components to dramatic tension: the Build and the Payoff. The Build is just what it sounds like. It is the rising action, the layers of mystery, the array of antagonists that help build excitement and doubt. It is the true definition of dramatic tension itself and that tension also often leads to the reader investing in the characters of the story as well. If they feel the need to see the end of the plot, it is likely they will feel an attachment to the characters involved in said plot as fellow travelers down the plot river.
The Build isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s a place where many writers make mistakes. Often, these problems can be found not so much in the plot itself but in elements of the plot, like poor characterization, unsympathetic characters, or poor pacing. Think about the words ‘drama’ and ‘tension’ in and of themselves. There have to be real stakes in a drama and tension implies a certain degree of stress. If you don’t provide consequences for the plot, you take the drama out of it. If you don’t communicate the stress and strain on the people in the plotline, you take the tension out of it. Finally, pacing in and of itself can instantly ruin the Build, even if you have the other two main factors covered.
If you’re having problems with the Build, those are the best places to start your introspection:
- What are the stakes and consequences of this plot? Are they understandable and are the readers aware of them to be able to feel the drama of the situation?
- Is there stress on the characters involved? Do they react appropriately to the stresses involved and the stakes as they are aware of them?
- How is the pacing? Are events moving so quickly that the readers never really understand or see the stakes and stress? Are events moving so slowly that the readers simply get bored with the situation, loosing the sense of excitement they need?
I would wager that by looking hard at those three questions, you can clear up the biggest PLOT-related factors to the Build. Characterization, well, that’s another ball of wax.
Now, technically, that’s all there is to dramatic tension, the Build. I, however, believe that the Payoff is important as well, almost as important as the Build itself. Now, what is the Payoff? It’s the satisfactory conclusion of that plot line, a conclusion that fits the characterization, the plot, the situation, and the reality of the world of the story. What happens if you successfully pull off the Build, have your readers hanging on every page, and then conclude a plot line with a completely flat conclusion? Or better yet a conclusion that derails the characterization of the protagonists or antagonists or both or simply breaks the rules you’ve set up in your fictional world?
Riot in the literary streets, that’s what! More importantly, it makes the reader not want to read more of your works. They don’t like to be robbed of that all-so-important Payoff; they want to know their investment and that anticipation was worth the wait. Worse, if this happens in a subplot before the main climax, they might just walk away from the book before they even get a chance to think about anything else you’ve written.
So, like with the Build, here are some questions that might help you start examining a problematic Payoff:
- Does the excitement of the Payoff match the Build? If you’ve built up an event, does the scene you have written match all the build up from the rest of the story?
- Does the Payoff’s resolution match the characters? Do the actions the characters take in this climax match what they would do in that situation as shown by the rest of the story?
- Does the Payoff actually resolve the plot points of the Build? If this is just the first of several Payoffs working towards a final climax (say part of an extended mystery in a series of books), does it at least provide some partial closure or a significant revelation to provide some reader satisfaction to reward them for future reading?
Dramatic tension and the big Payoff at the end are vital aspects to writing engrossing literature. You can have a fascinating plot, great characters, and the perfect writing style, but if you can’t get that proper build of tension and anticipation in your readers, it’s all for naught. They’ll never finish your book to appreciate your hard work.
Questions, comments? I’d love to see them! Until next time, good luck and good writing!