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 escalation.
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 does.
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 escalating.
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 other.
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 reader.
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 work.