I’ve read a number of books lately where the story fell flat and I found myself skimming the books. They may have started out great, but after the inciting moment, the story was tension-free until the end. A story like that will pretty much put you to sleep. The characters didn’t have goals, and therefore, there were no roadblocks or setbacks. The characters didn’t feel in jeopardy at all, so why keep reading?
(Consider the couple in the picture above and to the right. They have a goal of enjoying a nice day at the park, but it looks like they’re about to become dino dinner. Quite the obstacle, isn’t it?)
One of my favorite all-time movies is Jurassic Park, not because I like to see people get chased and eaten by dinosaurs, but because it’s an amazing tension-builder, probably one of the best movies I’ve seen for creating tension, and a lack of tension is what made the following Jurassic movies fall flat. Consider this scene (if you prefer, skip the video and read description below):
Setting: It’s raining in Jurassic Park, night has fallen, and the power has gone off. Two tourist cars are in the park with the dinosaurs, right next to the T-Rex area where a goat stands chained as T-Rex bait. No sign of the T-Rex. Until now, the characters aren’t terribly worried. The fences are built strongly. The characters trust that the power will come back on and that they’ll get back to the main building safely. Goal established.
But then the tension builds, events happen that get in the way of achieving their goal …
There’s a faint rumble, and ripple of water. Boom, you’re put on edge. The camera pans to a character’s eyes and you see worry. A young boy puts on night-vision goggles and notices that the goat is no longer tethered. Scared yet? Yeah, me too. Then a goat leg lands on top of the glass-topped vehicle accompanied by thunder. A dino-hand tugs on a wire that has a Danger 10,000 Volts sign attached, but as you know, the electricity is out. Up until now, you haven’t seen Mr. T-Rex, but I bet your heart is pumping.
Then T-Rex finally makes his appearance, and he looks straight at the camera. Straight at you. Then the director eases back for just a moment, giving the viewer a chance to breathe as an adult runs from the safety of the car to the presumed safety of an outhouse nearby, leaving two young kids alone in the car. In the other car, one of the adults makes a joke. But the relief is momentary as the wires to the T-Rex area start snapping and groaning. And finally Mr. T-Rex breaks from his enclosure and walks between the two vehicles. And roars.
I love how the director builds the tension by slowly adding layers, then stepping back to give you a breather, maybe just a glimpse of hope that the worst isn’t going to happen, then the tension escalates once again. The dinosaurs aren’t what make this movie frightening, rather it’s the anticipation of the dinosaurs coming that keep you on the edge of your seat.
As a women’s fiction writer, it’s easy to forget that I need that same tension in my stories. I need to set goals, I need to put my characters in jeopardy so that the reader fears what’s going to happen next. No, I won’t have a dinosaur break out of a cage, but I will have family and life complications that prevent my characters from attaining that goal right away. I will throw in roadblocks, then give the reader a short breather before adding another obstacle. And if don’t, I know I’m going to put the reader to sleep.