Think of your story as a car. Your car starts a road trip in one place with a destination in mind. Depending on how the journey progresses your car either follows the map and ends up where it intended to go, or it becomes diverted and ends up in a different place.
But wherever your car winds up, you want to bring the reader along for the ride. That’s why a reader reads, at least reads fiction.
Here are some reasons, from readers, as to why they pick up a book.
- Escape Reality
- Take Your Mind On An Adventure
- A Way To See Another Point Of View
- To Be Able To Get Outside One’s Self
- For The Suspense Of Watching A Good Plot Unfold
- To Become Immersed In Another World
As writers, you don’t want to leave your readers standing by the side of the road watching your car go past. Like riding a rollercoaster your reader wants to feel the anticipation of the slow climb, that moment of hesitancy at the top, then the awesome thrill of decent before the next climb.
When your reader is immersed in your story they will laugh, scream, and cry along with your characters. They care. They want to be there to share the drama of the ride.
The greater the emotion, the more energizing the action of the story, and the greater the effect on the reader.
Those strong emotions are developed through the conflict in your story. Conflict is the core of your story, and your characters are the heart. Those bumps and hills and detours your story car takes as it moves toward that end destination are the challenges your character faces on their journey. Conflict creates drama and drama draws the reader in; involves them in the story.
However, when you write your action scenes in sequence, as if writing out the movie picture in your head, the story is flat and boring. Emotion is needed to give the action force.
What if a mother and daughter-in-law were cooking Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen? The scene could be very boring. So you throw in some obstacles. The daughter-in-law forgets to turn the oven on. Mother burns the crescent rolls. Still, the scene is ordinary and flat.
But what if the mother resented the daughter-in-law for taking her son away. How would that emotion charge this otherwise ordinary scene of two women cooking Thanksgiving dinner together, even if not a word was spoken between them?
Conflicting emotions mean drama.
Delve into the feelings of your characters—sadness, greed, fury, fear. Show us why the feelings are there and how they will influence later actions and feelings.
Create uncertainty to build suspense. Think about the red wire or the blue wire—the lady or the tiger? Will the young soldier die to save his buddies? Will the unemployed single mom be able to take care of her children or will child services take them? Pauses add drama because the answer isn’t immediate. It leaves room for possibilities.
Think about this question in the early rush of mom heading to work and the kids to school.
“Where’s your back pack?”
No pause. The simple question is ordinary. It lacks drama. Now, we’ll add a pause.
“Where’s your backpack?”
“I don’t know.”
This uncertainty leaves room for possibilities. Anything can happen. The reader waits to find out what happens next.
The stakes must be high in order to create tension.
Life and love are two powerful stakes, but they must be significant enough to the character to produce tension. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension.
Now let’s put those same two lines at the Boston Marathon a year after the bombing.
“Where’s your backpack?”
“I don’t know.”
We must know who or what is pitted against who and we must understand the consequences. If we understand what’s at stake for the character if he/she doesn’t succeed, then we care. Give the reader a chance to jump in a root for your hero.
Each obstacle we throw at our character causes a reaction in our character, which then causes them to make a decision and take action, which then causes the next reaction, decision etc. etc.
Let the story unfold as we watch.
That way the drama touches us. It puts the reader in the scene and creates immediacy. Remember to show each obstacle. Don’t leave the reader outside your story watching it pass by.
“I was in my office when I received an emergency call about a warehouse fire on Ten Rod Road. I called Dan and picked him up on the way. When we arrived, the fire department was already there and the back of our warehouse was engulfed in flames.
“Once the fire department got the fire out they stayed for several hours watching for sparks and hot spots. The arson investigator showed up and walked through some of the rubble.
“Guess what he found? The charred remnants of Jake Spinner’s baseball cap. I knew he was mad at us for firing him, but I never expected this.”
This scene has elements of drama. There is a fire, arson is evidently suspected, and a clue as to the identity of the arsonist is discovered. However, there is no drama because the scene has no immediacy. The reader wasn’t there. The reader is being told about it after the fact and therefore while mildly interesting, the reader has no emotional investment in the scene.
Many writers do this in a scene at a restaurant or at the dinner table. They’ll use the meal as an opportunity to efficiently share information that the reader needs to move the story forward. Instead, if the stakes are high enough, forget the dinner scene. Put the reader at the warehouse fire. Use sensory detail to describe the heat, the smoke, the crackle of the burning building, the noise of the firemen moving trucks and hoses. And share the reactions of the characters as they watch their building go up in smoke. Let the reader know the cost, the stakes, how will this fire affect the characters. How will this loss keep them from their story goal?
Add layers, escalate the cost, make it harder. Let the reader cry when your character fails and cheer when they succeed. Take the reader for a ride.
If you would like to learn more about building conflict in your story, join me here at Savvy Authors, March 12th through April 9th for Bumps In The Road—How Conflict Drives Your Story. Through lecture, discussion, and exercises we’ll explore internal and external conflict, how tension creates drama, and ways to use conflict for that extra push when your story car gets stuck.
Kathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance and historical fiction. She is a Northwest Houston RWA Lone Star winner. A Place In Your Heart is her fourth full-length novel . Currently, she is putting the finishing touches on a contemporary young adult novel. She teaches fiction writing at a local adult education center. She is a regular presenter at area events and at the annual Pennwriters mini-conference, A Writers Road Trip in Erie, PA. She lives in the rolling farmland of western New York where she can often be found walking her dog through the woods and fields. She has been married for thirty-four years and is the mother of three grown children and one grandson. Kathy can be contacted at [email protected] .
A Civil War Romance from Kathy Otten and The Wild Rose Press
A Place In Your Heart
Northwest Houston RWA Lone Star Historical Winner
Secrets, panic attacks, a feisty Irish nurse and a lonely battlefield surgeon.
Gracie McBride isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for respect. But in this man’s world of Civil War medicine, Gracie is expected to maintain her place changing beds and writing letters. Her biggest nemesis is the ward surgeon, Doctor Charles Ellard, who seems determined to woo her with arrogant kisses and terrible jokes.
Charles is an excellent surgeon. He assumed he would be well received by an army at war. He was not. Friendless and alone, he struggles to hide the panic attacks that plague him while the only person who understands him is a feisty Irish nurse clearly resolved to keep him at a distance.
But, Charles is sent to the battlefield, and Gracie is left with a wounded soldier, a box of toys, and a mystery which can only be solved by the one man she wishes could love her, both as a woman and a nurse.