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Adding tension to a scene

Have you ever written a scene that you know is full of potential but is somehow lacking excitement? A scene where interesting characters are in an interesting setting, but somehow aren’t interesting enough to carry your attention forward?

Let’s face it–most events in a regular day aren’t worth writing a story about. Sure, we all have interesting conversations from time to time, and we all certainly have moments in our lives that are story-worthy. However, from your reader’s perspective, each scene in a story needs to be compelling. A scene that isn’t compelling is a reason for your reader to stop and find another story by somebody else. Ouch.

How do we make sure a scene has so much conflict and tension that your reader has no choice but to stick around and find out what happens?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Start with the ending and work backwards

If you’re having a hard time injecting some conflict into your scene, why not look at where the characters are starting, and where you’d like them to be at the end of the scene. Once you have the end in mind, start filling in backwards. What must your characters have had to do right before they reached the ending of the scene? Great, and what about right before that? Start at an exciting ending point, then follow the trail backwards.

This approach requires some work to figure out how to walk your characters backwards in time to the starting point of a scene. However, if you’ve planned out a story before, you can use all of your existing tools. Work at a high level, figure out what your characters would necessarily do to move from point A to point B, and let the wordy detail come later when you have a great structure in place.

You can work backwards regardless of the scale of your scene. Need some immediate action in a couple of pages? This works! Want to plot out your entire book this way? No problem.

Create more conflict

When in doubt, throw in some trouble. If your characters are in a boring situation, find a way to cause chaos in their life. Would you rather read about a hero who never had any trouble and always succeeded, or would you rather read about the same hero overcoming adversity and nearly failing, only to show what they’re really made of and earning victory?

Throwing trouble at your characters is a great way to help them show who they really are. (Note: this might be true of friends and family too, but we don’t recommend causing trouble with them for the sake of a good scene!)

Try closing your eyes and thinking of the worst thing that could happen to your characters at that moment. Does it fit? Does it make things more interesting? If so, great! (Not great for them, maybe, but great for your readers.) If it doesn’t fit, try a different sort of conflict. Does a friend find a reason to mistrust your protagonist? Does your protagonist discover that a friend has done something terrible? Has somebody close to your hero been lying? Did somebody get hurt as a result of one of your main character’s decisions? Ask tough questions, and find the conflict that helps push your characters to be stronger.

Find examples in related work

If you’re still stuck, try reading work that’s related to yours. You don’t want to rip off other ideas, but read with a writer’s eye, and look for places where conflict is present.

For example, the conflict found in a science fiction epic might be radically different than conflict found in a short romance. Try reading a few stories or books from your story’s genre and write out instances of conflict that jump out to you, whether large or small. Challenge yourself to look for conflict that doesn’t jump out immediately–subtle personality wars or external societal pressures.

With a fresh list of conflict sources, return to your own scene and see if you can use similar pains to push your characters along to a satisfying ending.

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