The Energy of Story: Tooling Up Tension in Fiction & Memoir

How to Jumpstart Story

Photo by Thomas Kelley @Unsplash

Whether you’re writing fiction or memoir, your story has a job to do: It has to carry your reader from a beginning, through a middle, and to an end. In this way, every story is a machine, and just like any other machine, a story requires energy to function. It needs some kind of fuel to keep it goingWhile there’s certainly energy in crackling prose and comic dialogue, it’s conflict that keeps readers turning pages. Readers crave the beguiling and unresolved questions and quandaries that generate narrative tension.

When narrative tension flags, it’s most often because the story (or the chapter or scene) lacks conflict. While you may feel compelled to complicate the action and throw more obstacles in your protagonist’s path, consider intensifying tension by digging deeper into character, mining your protagonist for internal conflicts and tapping into the narrative energy they contain.Here are two strategies for tapping into character to jumpstart story:

Strategy 1: Driven by Desire

It can be useful to remember that sometimes conflict is just another word for desire: I want x, but I don’t have it. I want love; I want bravery; I want to be left alone; I want a seat on the subway; a part in a play; a kiss from a certain someone; a donut.

The assertion of a character’s desire generally supplies a story with a source of potential energy.

Let’s say that my character Merrill desperately wants a donut, but it’s the middle of the workday and there’s not a donut for miles.

Will she sneak off to Winchell’s for a chocolate glazed? What are the consequences of shirking her duties? Is she slipping away for a few minutes in the midst of mowing a lawn—or is she ducking out in the middle of performing brain surgery? What’s at stake for her if she gives in to this desire? Will she lose her job if she gets caught?

Establishing a desire—the degree of it, what’s at stake in pursuing it, and the behavior driven by it—brings dimension to the desire and transforms it into conflict. Take a minute to describe that fantasy donut in all its chocolate-glazed glory and a reader may even be propelled through the scene in a state of vicarious anticipation.

A donut, a love interest, a promotion, a parking space—when a reader understands what a character desires and what’s at stake in pursuing it, there’s a spark of energy on the page, the tension borne of wondering whether that desire will be thwarted or realized.

While the asserted object of desire may not seem like a particularly powerful narrative fuel, even the simplest desire invites further exploration of character:

  • Who is this person so desirous of a donut that she’s willing to risk her job?
  • Is pursuit of this donut an indulgence or an act of self-sabotage?
  • Is blowing off work for a donut an act of entitlement—or an act of vengeance, a means of punishing a co-worker, or a boss, or a dilettante spouse?
  • Is the donut itself the object of her desire—or is it an excuse to see the person working at the counter? Or is she actually compelled to check in on the neglected dog that’s always tied up in front of the store?

Rather than installing roadblocks between protagonist and donut, writing your way into your character’s immediate and incidental desires may well provide an access route to this person’s greater complexities and existential dilemmas, allowing you to tap into the electrifying conflicts they carry within.

Strategy 2: Characteristic and Combustion

In life, we all want to be recognized as multi-faceted and complex, but on the page—in story—it’s often useful to train a reductive lens on a character, focusing on a single defining characteristic. This single defining characteristic can often serve as a fuel source powerful enough to offer combustion throughout the story.

But I contain multitudes!” our characters might protest. “Not in this draft,” we must insist…

Consider, for example, the Cowardly Lion. 

The Cowardly Lion as pictured in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

In his single, scaredy-cat, utterly reductive characteristic, there is inherent conflict: He’s a coward—but he wishes he weren’t.

And in that simple, utterly reductive dilemma, there’s the stuff of story: Conflict. Tension. Narrative Energy. This single defining characteristic propels the Cowardly Lion’s entire story line. What does it mean to be a coward? How does it impact his daily life? How does it limit his vision for his future? Sure, he wants courage, but is he even brave enough to travel to Oz?

With this characteristic so clearly established, no matter what the Cowardly Lion does, his actions are all charged with a certain tension as the reader anticipates how each scene will engage or challenge this characteristic.

Consider this scenario: Dorothy is trapped in the witch’s castle and the Cowardly Lion must decide whether or not to try to save her. He really wants to save her—what a good friend she has been!—but does he have the courage to do it?

Imagine him standing tormented at the castle’s entrance, steeling himself to run inside, to brave those terrifying flying monkeys and rescue his new friend.

He wants to do it; he can’t. He wants to do it; he can’t.

Because his defining characteristic is so clearly established, the situation itself is charged with energy.  It doesn’t even matter what decision the Cowardly Lion makes. If he runs into the castle like a hero; if he cowers and runs back into the woods; if he stands there ruminating until, at long last, he wills himself to play hero but it’s just too late—any one of these outcomes can deliver a satisfying sense of story expressly because each engages the potential energy of the characteristic that’s so clearly been defined.

Desire + Defining Characteristic

Let’s return to our aforementioned donut-seeking character for a moment. Her immediate desire is enough to set story in motion, but you might find further fuel in considering if there’s a defining characteristic that’s underlying that desire. Is she a person who’s just always walking around feeling deprived? Is she simply insatiable on all fronts? Or has she historically settled for less than what she wants—and finally she just wants the goddamn donut she deserves?

All to say that if you find your story’s energy flagging, try tapping into your character’s desire and/or defining characteristic. By mining these internal conflicts and conditions, you’ll usually find plenty of fuel to fire up your narrative, to keep you writing toward a resonant understanding of what the story is about, and to propel your readers to keep turning the page.

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Merrill Feitell

Award-winning author of literary fiction with extensive branding and advertising background and a decade of teaching creative writing at graduate and undergraduate levels, Merrill has helped hundreds of writers develop material and prime manuscripts for publication. View profile.

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