Thursday, 22 November 2018

Getting the Tension Out of Your Head and Onto The Page

I was watching Batman v Superman recently (and there are going to be some spoilers in here if anyone cares about that).  There are some great moments in that movie but the whole thing suffers from a challenge that I've seen in a number of stories: not setting up the conflict properly so that the audience cares about the tension.

Why can't I just pour the words directly out of my brain?
It's actually pretty easy to understand how this happens.  Most writers work backwards from the central conflict.  I almost always start with what will become the most intense moment in my stories and then take the time to figure out how the characters will get there and how to make the reader care about that moment the same way I do.  The second part is actually the hardest.  It's fairly easy to come up with a map of scene A will lead to decision B that will lead to my Big Moment.  But in order for the reader to care about the Big Moment, I need to make sure they connect with the characters, can identify with the conflict and becomes emotionally invested in the characters' choices.

In Batman v Superman, the reason for Batman deciding to fight Superman and vice versa is actually fairly weak.  Superman doesn't like Batman's vigilante justice model and Batman fears Superman going rogue.  Nothing about those reasons explains why they choose this particular moment to battle it out.  Even adding in extra pressure with Lex Luthor kidnapping Superman's mom and demanding that Batman be killed doesn't really add tension or seem realistic (since we've seen Superman effortlessly save the people he cares about any number of times previously).  

If I were to rewrite that story, I would want to play up Lex Luthor's role in manipulating both Superman and Batman.  Feed Batman some false news stories about Superman abusing his powers.  Give Superman information that Batman has targeted innocents.  Spend actual time exploring the real fears that Superman has no checks on his power, but give Batman a reason to believe that there is imminent danger, maybe by having Superman make comments that he is tired of rescuing people constantly and has thought about taking charge.  Have Superman fear that Batman is becoming more violent and reckless as he gets older.  Or show that the two of them have an existing relationship and have already been in conflict over the best approach to fighting crime and protecting civilians.  

If the audience knew that both of them were being manipulated, that would increase the tension as we wonder if they will discover the truth in time to prevent catastrophe.  If we knew they had a pre-existing relationship, we could enjoy petty bickering which would draw us into a deeper emotional connection.  There could have been an escalating series of arguments which end with the protagonists on opposite sides.

So how can an author make sure that the tension in their head is actually going onto the page so that the reader can be caught up in it?

1) Make sure your readers connect with your characters.

This is different from making your characters likable.  Audiences connect with unlikable characters all the time (though it is harder and requires more sophisticated techniques).  There needs to be something unique about your character, something that transforms them from a flat stereotype or caricature into someone that feels real to the reader.  The audience needs to care about this particular character making it through the plot.

There are a couple of techniques that can help an author create connectable characters:

* Give the character an idiosyncrasy.  
* Take the time to get deep into their point of view and show them reacting emotionally to the plot events.  
* Explore their backstory to show how they reached this particular point.
* Make the character an underdog or struggling against a greater challenge or in some kind of physical danger.
* Make the character exceptionally skilled at what they do or give them a strong sense of humour.
* Show the little everyday human moments for your characters.

2) Show your readers the main conflict in a way they can identify with

Most of us will never have to save the world.  But everyone has had to make a difficult decision about whether or not to draw a line in the sand when someone was pushing our boundaries.  The challenges the characters are facing might not be something that a reader has ever experienced or they might be everyday struggles.  But even the most esoteric conflict can be broken down into something familiar.

The key to identifying with a conflict is to find the universal element, for example:

* fear of disappointing someone we love or admire
* choosing between our comfort zone and our dreams
* wanting to be accepted by our peers/family
* feeling rejected, abandoned or hurt
* fear of failure

3) Get your readers emotionally invested in your character's choices

Even if a reader loves a character, it's hard to care about mundane, every day decisions that don't affect the greater plot: like choosing what to have for dinner or what to wear.  In order for tension to matter, it needs to be about something significant and the reader needs to understand that it's significant.  For example, deciding what to wear could be a significant decision if the character is an ambassador and the choice could insult their hosts.

An author needs to find ways to explain without bogging the story down in an info-dump:

* tell a story within the story (anecdotes, a news story, a flashback) that explains the stakes
* use the character's emotional reactions to show that a decision is significant
* establish the consequences of the big conflict early on in the story as part of the initial world-building

Sometimes authors get caught up in making sure the plot flows quickly, but taking a scene or two to make sure that your readers are caught up in the building tension is always worth the time.

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Or see how well I follow my own advice in my own stories about a secret society of superheroes living among us.

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