Duel Buddies

Creating tension in every chapter is a common problem for authors writing suspense novels. Other factors come into play that are important but not exciting, such as setting up characters early on. You do need to craft a portrait of a protagonist so that the reader gets to know her enough to care about her. So what is the best way to balance the two imperatives?

You spread the wealth. When a plot is first conceived, it tends to be binary in nature. Character 1 must resolve the evil committed by Character 2. You can expand this metric to twin clusters of Protagonist + cohorts and Villain + cohorts, by the way. The problem is that the good side is not creating tension, because they’re not evil, and setting up the good guys usually the aim of character portrayal. So every chapter in which you are delineating character is a dud. 

Spreading the wealth means expanding beyond that binary plot opposition. You have multiple ways of creating tension. For one method, you need look no further than the title of Leslie Fiedler’s famous book of criticism: Love and Death in the American Novel. Who is the protagonist’s romantic partner? How can they be unhappy with each other? In this scenario, you write a chapter that includes a lot of good setup material, but it revolves, for instance, around the boyfriend’s announcement that he is going off on a long journey to “find myself.”

For another idea, people that you want to write about often are suffering from financial difficulties. That leads to rash actions that, while they can’t match up to a villain’s murder, can engender danger of a different form. Desperation about the shame of being exposed to a spouse is gripping enough to serve as a main plot, so it could work nicely as an alternate tension source for you.

Either of these purported scenarios could be expanded into hundreds of choices, limited only by your imagination. Notice in both, however, that the tension springs from an interaction with a nearest and dearest. Husband and wife, lovers, best friends, parent and child: when you develop antagonism on a personal level, it will produce friction. Better yet, while they’re shouting at each other, you can show all sorts of character traits.

Exercise: If you head off in too many minor plot directions, looking for tension, the reader will become confused. One way to manage the threads spiraling outward is to have them originate from a common source, such as a family. Amy might decide that Brad’s trip will start with a permanent bon voyage, but she’s also calling her sister, Carol, to check in. Carol has her own pressure cooker involving a workaholic husband getting an apartment in the city, etc. As they proceed forward, you have the sisters keep tabs on each other.

“I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue.” 
—Aaron Sorkin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine 

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