Wednesday, June 01, 2011

It's About Conflict and Tension

Thanks to Lilian Stewart Carl for sharing all that information about kilts yesterday. I learned a lot. If you didn't read her post, you definitely need to scroll down.

When I wrote Monday's post, on why I decided to go indie with DANGER IN DEER RIDGE, I had several people email me asking me why I didn't put up more about the book itself.

Interesting question. First, although I definitely want people to buy my books, I've kind of had this "no self-promotion" rule about this blog. I did include links to my website for blurb and first chapter, as well as buy links, so that the information was available for those who wanted to look. And if you missed it, you can find it here.

More in keeping with the focus of this blog, I thought I'd provide a little more of a behind the scenes peek at the writing process. Donald Maass suggests there be tension on every page, and microtension in every paragraph. Characters have to want something, and there need to be reasons why they can't have it. There needs to be conflict.

Under the broad umbrella of all romance sub-genres, one critical element is the first meet between hero and heroine. So, I thought I'd share some of the first meet scene from DANGER IN DEER RIDGE with you, and mark it up with how I tried to create tension and conflict. In this scene, the heroine has a clear goal: start her new life. She's just arrived at her new home with her eight-year-old son. Making sure he's safe is her top priority.

She filled the pot with water, then set it on the burner. Checking the unfamiliar gas range, she matched the knob with the appropriate burner and twisted it. Nothing. She waited. Tried again. Was she supposed to light the burner with a match? Where was the instruction book? She yanked open drawers hoping to find one. Nothing. Conflict: without gas, she can't cook.

Taking a calming breath, she twisted the knob again, leaning forward to listen for the hiss of gas. Still nothing. She sniffed. Nope.

Great. Grace's Realtor had promised the rented house was move-in ready. Elizabeth ran the water in the sink. After several minutes, it hadn't warmed. These 2 paragraphs show her trying to figure out the problem.

Stop. Think. Lights work. Refrigerator works. Those were electric. The stove was gas, and she suspected the water heater was as well. Heat? The sun streamed in, and she hadn't noticed a chill in the place. But if the heat wasn't working, it would get cold once the sun went down. The Colorado mountains weren't known for sultry nights in June. Increased conflict: She needs heat, too.

Biting back a curse, she dried her hands and went to the car for her rudimentary tool kit. She'd picked up a few skills helping Miri keep Galloway House running, but she was more of a tool passer than a Ms. Fixit. Would she know a gas line if she tripped over it?

Become more self-sufficient. Another thing to add to her growing "To Do" list. Attempting to solve her own problems to solve her problems and meet her own goals.

She popped the trunk and reached in for the red metal case. The sound of footfalls behind her had her jerking upward, slamming her head into the edge of the trunk. She forced herself to move slowly. Increasing tension; she's on the run, trying to avoid people. To add conflict—get another person onto the page.

Ignore the pain. Keep both hands free. Did she have time to open the chest and grab something heavy? Wasn't there one of those tire-changing things lying in the trunk? Trying not to be obvious, she groped along the carpet-lined space. Again, trying to solve her own problems.

"Ms. Parker?" A deep male voice conjured images of a linebacker-sized hit man. But why would a hit man use her new name? Her mind whirled. The voice wasn't Victor's. If Victor sent some thug, wouldn't he be asking for Julie Ann? Who other than Grace and a Realtor she'd never met face-to-face knew she was here? The Realtor was a woman. Should she admit to being Elizabeth Parker? Words such as 'hit man' show her fear that someone might find her. We know someone named Victor wants her. Internal monologue gives reader a peek into her fears.

And then a thought surpassed all others.

Will's alone in the house. Tension increased. Stakes raised. It's now her son's safety as well as hers.

Her fingers wrapped around cool metal. Barely registering its four-sided shape, she hefted it. Heavy enough to do some damage. Awkward to conceal. She half-turned, keeping her head down.

He cleared his throat. "Sorry I'm late. I'm here to turn on the gas." A break in the tension. She's getting what she wants.

I'll continue this one tomorrow.


Jan Morrison said...

this was definitely the hardest lesson I`ve had to learn as a writer. Because I`m also a psychotherapist, I`m always trying to `cure` my protagonists! Argghh. Thanks for an interesting post and also, I just caught up on your last few posts - very interesting one on your going the self-publishing route - good on ya!
I adore kilts and the men who wear them and I love that joke!

Terry Odell said...

Jan - there ARE a lot of lessons, aren't there. That's why I try to share what I'm learning along the way. Glad you had time to visit again.

Janice said...

Yes, tension, but you don't have to have it in ever scene. Sometimes readers need a rest, but only a short one.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I always like to throw in a little extra tension in a scene--it doesn't have to be epic, but even the everyday little frustrations can definitely add to a scene. :)

Terry Odell said...

Janice, tension doesn't have to be major or traumatic, or high-action. It can be quite simple, which is what I tried to show here.

Elizabeth - I agree, and how your character deals with these frustrations says a lot.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Donald Maass pushes everyone to raise the stakes, mostly to our great benefit. However, every paragraph? That's tough. Liz

Ciara said...

I've worked with a lot of Donald Mass' technique. I find them all extremely helpful in the writing process.

Brinda said...

Thank you for such an informative post. I like how you show the conflict in each paragraph instead of just telling me about it.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth C. -- well, it can be a goal. And as I've tried to show, it's simply making characters want something, which can be something trivial--and then tossing obstacles in their way.

Ciara - I've only been to one of Maass' workshops, but (can you guess) it was on microtension and very helpful.

Brinda - thanks. As we all know, 'show' is better than 'tell'! :-)

Elizabeth C. Main said...

I know he's right. I once spent about 2 minutes talking to Donald Maass at a conference and his succinct question about the second book in my series was perfect: "Is it better than the first?" It wasn't, at that point, but it is now. Liz

Tami Veldura said...

Tension is one of those things that took me forever to recognize in a format tuT I could talk about. Before it was 'this doesn't feel significant enough' but I couldn't define it any more solidly then that. This is a great post for pointing out exactly why the tension goes up in each paragraph and how the tension breaks in the last one. Thank you!