Everyone would agree that at the heart of every story is ‘tension,’ and at the heart of tension is ‘unfulfilled desire.’ At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. We all know as soon as he gets it, the story is over. Bear in mind, a story is made up of many smaller problems that must be resolved within the framework of an even greater plot escalation.
It’s a good idea to create a “hook” at the beginning of your story. Aspiring authors all too often dump pages of background to explain the context of their hook - not a good idea. Why? Because you’ve killed escalation.
I believe this is also why dream sequences typically don’t work—the protagonist thinks she’s in a unreal nightmare, then wakes up and realizes none of it was real. So, things really aren’t that bad after all.
That’s the opposite of escalation—you’ve killed the forward movement of your story.
It’s plain and simple - tension drives a story forward. When tension is resolved, the momentum of the story is lost. Neither character nor plot really drives a story forward—only unfulfilled desire does.
Page after page of entertaining dialog about your character, description about the landscape, or even incredibly interesting history won’t move your story along; it’ll cause it to stall out. We need to know what the character wants and what the story is about, or we won’t care or agonize about whether or not the character’s desires are ultimately met.
It’s the same thing with your plot, which is a series of events your character experiences as he moves through a crisis that will change – for better or worse, his life. So even if you have shoot-out after shoot-out, the reader eventually won’t care unless they know what the stakes are. A story isn’t driven forward by events happening, but by tension escalating.
All stories are “tension-driven!” Stories should have two struggles that play off each other, which will deepen the tension of the story. The character’s external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved; her internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered. The interaction of these two struggles is balancing until, at the climax, the resolution of one gives the protagonist the skills, insights or ability to resolve the other.
The genre you write might have expectations and guidelines that dictate the scheme of the internal or external struggle in your story. Today’s readers are perceptive and narratively cognizant. Include both an internal struggle to compel the reader to empathize with the protagonist, and an external struggle that drives the movement of the story toward its exciting climax.
I once was told that as I plot my novel, I should ask myself, “How can I make things worse?” This is an exciting question to ask, and it will pressurize you to create ways to drive the protagonist deeper and deeper into an impossible situation (emotionally, physically or relationally). You are then charged with the wit to resolve them in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to the reader.
Keep in mind your story needs to evolve toward more and more conflict, with increased intimate struggles and deeper tension.
As the cliché goes; the plot must thicken; it must never thin. Think about it this way, repetition is the enemy of escalation. Every murder, car accident, or injury you introduce decreases the impact that each subsequent murder, car accident, or injury will have on the reader. Repetitive injuries, appeals, prayers, sex scenes lessen the impact to the reader, simply because repetition serves to work against the escalation your story so desperately needs.
Strive to constantly make things worse for the protagonist. You’ll actually be making things better for the reader.
When characters act in ways that are convincing and realistic in their drive to reach their goals, the story remains believable. These deepening conflicts and struggles keep the reader caring about what’s happening as well as interested in what’s going to happen next.
By consistently propelling your story forward through action that flows naturally, characters acting believably, and tension that mounts compellingly, will keep the reader flipping pages and gasping for more of your work.