Web Blog of Connie Vines, author or multi-genre fiction. Awards: H.O.L.T. Medallion (Honoring Outstanding Literary Talent), Orange Rose, Award of Excellence--Contemporary Romance; Independent eBook Award, Dream Realm Award. National Book Award and Frankfurt Book Award, nominee--YA Historical Fiction. Blog includes guest bloggers and snippets of WIP.
And now we get Secret #3 from Steven James' March 7, 2011 blog – enjoy!Rita
IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION.
At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is
unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but
cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a
problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot
As part of the novel-writing intensives that I teach, I review
and critique participants’ manuscripts. Often I find that aspiring authors have
listened to the advice of so many writing books and included an engaging “hook”
at the beginning of their story. This is usually a good idea; however, all too
often the writer is then forced to spend the following pages dumping in
background to explain the context of the hook.
Not a good idea.
Because you’ve killed escalation.
This is also why dream sequences typically don’t work—the
protagonist thinks she’s in a terrible mess, then wakes up and realizes none of
it was real.
So, things weren’t really that bad after all.
That’s the opposite of escalation—and the death of the forward
movement of the story.
Tension drives a story forward. When tension is resolved, the
momentum of the story is lost. I’ve heard writing instructors differentiate
between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories, but the truth is that
neither character nor plot really drives a story forward—only unmet desire
You might include page after page of interesting information
about your character, but that won’t move the story along; it’ll cause it to
stall out. Until we know what the character wants, we don’t know what the story
is about, and we won’t be able to worry or care about whether or not the
character’s desires are eventually met.
Somewhat similarly, plot is simply the casually related series
of events that the character experiences as he moves through a crisis or
calling into a changed or transformed life. So you might include chase scene after
chase scene, but eventually the reader couldn’t care less that one car is
following another down the street. Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t
care. A story isn’t driven forward by events happening, but by tension
All stories are “tension-driven” stories.
Now, to create depth in your characters, typically you’ll have
two struggles that play off each other to 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 interplay of
these two struggles is complementary until, at the climax, the resolution of
one gives the protagonist the skills, insights or wherewithal to resolve the
To some extent the genre in which you write will have
expectations and conventions that’ll dictate the precedence of the internal or
external struggle in your story. However, readers today are very astute and
narratively aware. If you intend to write commercially marketable fiction, you’ll
need to include both an internal struggle that helps us empathize with the
protagonist, and an external struggle that helps drive the movement of the
story toward its exciting climax.
So, as you shape your novel, ask yourself, “How can I make
things worse?” Always look for ways to drive the protagonist deeper and deeper
into an impossible situation (emotionally, physically or relationally) that you
then eventually resolve in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to the
The story needs to progress toward more and more conflict, with
more intimate struggles and deeper tension.
The plot must always thicken; it must never thin. Because of
that, repetition is the enemy of escalation. Every murder you include decreases
the impact that each subsequent murder will have on the reader. Every
explosion, prayer, conversion, sex scene means less and less to the reader,
simply because repetition, by its very nature, serves to work against that
escalation your story so desperately needs.
Strive, instead, to continually make things worse for the
protagonist. In doing so, you’ll make them better and better for the reader.
All three of these storytelling secrets are interwoven. When
every event is naturally caused by the one that precedes it, the story makes sense.
As characters act in ways that are credible and convincing in the quest for
their goals, the story remains believable, and the deepening tension and
struggles keep the reader caring about what’s happening as well as interested
in what’s going to happen next.
By consistently driving your story forward through action that
follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts
exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages and panting for more of your