Graphs of story tension are nothing new. You might have seen a graph before of how tension rises and falls in a classic story. Something like this:
Graphing your own story’s tension to see how it compares to the classic arc is a great way of seeing where your story has general weaknesses. (Hooray!) But it doesn’t really tell you how to fix them. (Boo!)
The thing is, good stories don’t just have one plot line or one thread of tension. Good stories have a main plot that covers the length of the book, but there are usually multiple layers of tension within that plot, and subplots too. Those layers can zip in and out of your story, get resolved quickly or last the whole novel. By graphing all the layers, you can see exactly where things are going wrong (or right!) in your writing, and you should get some ideas on how to fix them.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Go through your story and list all the threads of tension as you come across them, both action-based (Will X defuse the bomb in time?) and character-based (Will X’s relationship with her sister improve?). As long as the reader’s worrying about it or rooting for it, write it down.
2. Create a table like the one below, listing your tensions horizontally and all chapter numbers vertically. I used Excel, you can use paper but you’ll need some patience when you get to step 4.
3. For every tension thread, assign a number from 1-10 (1 = low tension, 10 = high) for each chapter that it features in. Some threads might last a whole novel, some might last only one chapter. For example, a low-tension thread that runs from chapter 4 to 6, might be a 2 in chapter 4, a 3 in chapters 5 and 6, then get resolved and drop out of the story. A higher-tension thread might not necessarily run any shorter or longer, but would score higher-ratings.
4. Create a graph of your table. Gawp at all those messy lines. Here’s what mine looked like.
5. Now, add a “Total” column in your table and sum the tensions for each chapter.
6. Graph this again and you’ll see a total tension line.
7. Analyse. Look at your total tension line first. Compare it to the ‘classic’ tension graph at the top, so you can see potential areas of weakness in your story. (My WIP obviously has a lot of areas of weakness!) Keep in mind, there are plenty of stories that don’t strictly follow the classic tension graph.
Now look at the mini-lines of tension. Using my graph as an example, here are some issues you might be looking for:
- Tension threads all falling away at once before the end of the story (chapter 24/25)
- Too few tension threads (chapter 25 onwards)
- Too low tension in general (chapter 25-29)
- Too many threads which are episodic and resolved too fast (chapters 29-30, 32-33, 34-35, 37-38 etc.)
- A lack of novel-long tensions
7. Looking at your graph, consider how to fix your story’s problems.
- Can you ‘stretch’ any tension threads, e.g. ones which are resolved too fast, to fill sparse areas?
- Can you shift tension threads around, e.g. bring a subplot in earlier or later?
- Can you tie short, episodic tensions together, or replace them with a longer thread that connects better to the rest of your plot?
- Do you need to add new threads?
- Are there tensions which need raising or lowering?
These are just a few examples, but hopefully you can see how putting a little time into creating a graph of the tension threads in your story can help you diagnose quickly where things have gone wrong, and give you some ideas on how to fix them. Have you ever used a graph to analyse your writing?
Kendra Leighton is a UK-based YA author represented by Lutyens & Rubinstein Literary Agency. Her debut novel, Glimpse, was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’. It will be published in June 2014 by Much-in-Little.
Kendra has a BA in English Literature. Her first ‘grown-up’ job was teaching English in China, Spain, and the UK. She discovered her love for YA fiction while working as a middle-school English teacher.
In 2008, she left teaching to start an organic chocolate company. These days, when she’s not making chocolate, she can usually be found writing, reading, taste-testing chocolate (far more than necessary), or trying to steal other people’s cats.
Liz only wants to be normal.
Seven years ago Liz was in a car accident which killed her mother and left her with no memory of the first ten years of her life. Since then nothing has felt quite right: on top of the perpetual nightmares, she keeps catching glimpses of things, things that can’t really be there, that no-one else can see.
When she inherits the famous Highwayman Inn from her grandfather, and moves to live there with her dad, she is convinced it will be a fresh start: but if anything, life at the Inn is stranger than ever. The sinister caretaker and his creepy son seem to be watching her constantly . . . A boy called Zachary keeps haunting her . . . And out of the pitch-black night, the Highwayman comes riding.
Inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, Glimpse is a ghost story, a love story, and a story of overcoming trauma.