1. The Consequences of Failure Are Unknown
Tension is created by the possibility that something bad might happen. For that to work, your audience must know about the bad thing. Storytellers often take it for granted that if they put their protagonist in a fight or another standard conflict, then the stakes of that conflict are known. But the audience might not realize that a fight is to the death or that an argument will determine whether the protagonist is imprisoned. To create tension, you need to actively inform your audience of what will happen if everything goes wrong.
Even if your audience does know what’s at stake, describing it can help you increase tension. When the consequence of failure goes unmentioned, it doesn’t feel very important. However, if you remind them about what could happen, you’re also creating an opportunity to emphasize what a big deal the failure is and how hard it will be for the protagonist to avoid it.
Working this information into the narration is usually simple, particularly if you’re writing from the point of view of your protagonist. They’ll have plenty of reason to think over the obstacles they’re facing and worry about what could happen to them.
Mitch McHero looked at the scared faces of his warriors, and then back at the lines of spears held by their enemy. His forces were outnumbered three to one. The only chance they had to escape the slavers was if he challenged their leader to single combat. But even if she accepted, she was known far and wide for her skill in combat. When she was done with him, he’d be no more than a bloody smear.
If you aren’t working in a narrated medium, you’ll want someone to say something like, “But you can’t challenge her to single combat! She’s the greatest warrior in the land. Once she’s done with you, you’ll be nothing but a bloody smear.”
2. The Hero Isn’t Likable Enough
When readers are bored, writers generally assume they have to make their fights fightier. But sometimes the answer has nothing to do with those fights at all. Unfortunately, that makes the root of this problem difficult for writers to catch.
Here’s the thing: having consequences for failure isn’t enough. Those consequences also have to matter to your audience.
What does it mean for something to matter? There’s no objective benchmark; it all depends on the audience’s emotional investment in the story. The more emotionally invested they are, the more small things become important. And in any story, it’s the protagonist’s job to be a lightning rod for emotional investment. First, you make your protagonist matter to your audience, and then everything that impacts your protagonist also matters.
That won’t work if the audience doesn’t like your hero, and you can’t count on your audience to adore your hero just because you do. Like anything else your story relies on, you need to actively cultivate likability. If you aren’t sure how to do that, you can start with my list of twelve lovable traits.
If you do have a likable protagonist but the conflict has no impact on them, then that could also be your problem. Keep the plot focused on your hero; that’s what they’re for!
3. There’s Plenty of Time
So you’ve clarified the consequences of failure, and those consequences matter to your audience. You’re not done; it has to feel like your protagonist could actually face those consequences. For that, problems need some level of urgency. Even insurmountable problems don’t seem that way when there’s enough time to solve them. Obviously, this can happen if you name a deadline that’s too roomy, but it’s also easy to imply lack of urgency by mistake.
First, are your protagonists acting like the problem isn’t urgent? If they decide to go camping for three days instead of heading right to the villain’s fortress to steal that powerful artifact, the only conclusion is that they don’t really need the artifact. The heroes can still have a quiet scene to catch their breath during a fairly urgent situation, but wasting a whole day won’t look good.
Second, does a bunch of time pass without anything happening? If you jump to six weeks later, and your protagonists still haven’t made headway on their problem, they should have already failed and faced consequences. If everything is the same, the problem won’t seem serious. However, you can establish that an invasion is coming in six weeks, and the protagonists will need every moment of that time to secure their fortress. The difference is that you’ve explained how a deadline in six weeks is still a tight deadline, and that something was indeed happening as time passed. A deadline of three years may still be stretching it too far, but urgency can work on a timeline of months instead of days.
Finally, has your protagonist made an attempt to solve their problem without facing any consequences? This suggests they can keep trying again and again until they finally succeed. Add a tight deadline and show how their attempts waste precious time. Give them enough time for three tries at most. Even then, I recommend adding additional consequences so that each attempt is more difficult than the last. This will ensure that tension escalates as the story continues.
4. The Hero Succeeded or the Villain Failed
Even with a tight deadline, the chance your protagonist will fail may seem too remote to create tension. One of the biggest things your audience will take as predictive of success or failure is how the conflicts in the story have turned out so far.
Every time your villain fails at their objective, they lose some of their menace. With just a few failures, they’ll look like an incompetent pushover, not like someone who could defeat the hero. Storytellers often end up with this problem because they aren’t sure how to keep the story going without the hero and villain confronting each other. Then, since the hero can’t die, the villain has to lose. You can avoid these confrontations in the first place by filling in your story’s middle with other conflicts. If the hero and villain do fight each other early, it shouldn’t be a fight between equals. Instead, the hero should be trying to escape with their life because they know they are outmatched. Then when they manage to flee, the villain will still look threatening.
A hero who succeeds at one of their objectives can also drop the tension level too low. One reason for this is that anytime your hero’s job seems easier than before, tension will go down. So if your hero succeeds at getting vital information or finding a powerful weapon, then their chances of defeating the villain could feel too certain. You can restore the tension in these spots by making something go wrong. Another reason a heroic victory could lower tension is that after this happens several times, the hero may look undefeatable. This is especially likely if your protagonist is over-candied. Remember to give them some weaknesses!
5. The Throughline Is on Hiatus
A good story builds momentum as it goes, getting the audience emotionally invested in a protagonist and the big challenge they’re facing. Opening a story is tricky, but once that’s done, you should have an easier time maintaining tension in the plot you’ve already established. However, that investment won’t pay off if you wander away from what you’ve so carefully built.
For instance, let’s say you’ve established that mages in the city have been disappearing, and your protagonist has been tasked with discovering who’s responsible and stopping them. If you spend a whole chapter showing your protagonist fighting with their landlady – or worse, a completely different character fighting with their landlady – that’s going to be a letdown. You’ve already promised readers a story that’s more riveting, so they’ll be impatient to get back to that. Even if the landlady ends up being the mage-snatcher, it won’t change their initial boredom when hearing about her.
A similar problem can occur if your main plot stalls for whatever reason. Maybe the protagonist isn’t making any headway in finding the mage-snatcher, or they’re twiddling their thumbs while they wait for a warrant to make an arrest. At that point, any fights they get into could feel like filler, since those conflicts won’t impact the throughline. Whether the protagonist wins or loses a fight, they still gotta wait for that arrest warrant. So, wherever possible, keep your main plot moving. If you can’t avoid making your protagonist wait for something, summarize time passing and skip to when that wait is over.
If you’re still having trouble, ask your test audience some open-ended and neutral-sounding questions to discover where the problem is. Do they know what bad things will happen if the hero fails their struggle against the antagonist? Do they care if those consequences come to pass? Do they think the antagonist can beat the hero? The answer is in there.
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