Avoiding Tension Drains

Graph from www.yahighway.com

Graph from www.yahighway.com

Why is raising the stakes of my WIP so hard to do? I have no problem recognizing low stakes choices when other writer’s make them. Ask anybody I edit for; I bet they’ll all say they’re sick of hearing me nag about getting to the conflict as quickly as possible.

So why do I have such trouble applying this to my writing? It finally dawned on me after more years than I care to admit that I’ve been going to ridiculous lengths to avoid even the lightest whiff of peril for my beloved heroes. Sometimes I’d pen entire chapters without ever endangering, much less challenging the protagonist. Even when I made outlines, mapping out each crisis in advance, I still filled my stories with easy (a.k.a. boring) solutions.

I fooled myself into thinking that if the writing was coming easily it must be good. I thought experiencing that autopilot feeling was desirable. I was so very wrong. All I was doing when I found myself in the ‘zone’ was letting my hero relax his way back onto the path of least resistance. Which is why my stories always ended up in the land that tension forgot.

But no more!

Now I stop anytime I find myself cruising along, fingers flying, and easily following my characters across the page. I force myself to take the time, right then, to honestly assess my work. And almost without fail, I find that new scene that just flowed so easily lacks conflict.

A corollary lesson I continue to teach myself is how to recognize what I call tension drains. These are those conflict-lacking scenes that act as holes for all the tension to drain out of my story. For example, one of my favorite tension drains is the mealtime scene. This one’s been tough for me to give up. I can really sink my teeth into writing a dinner conversation (stupid pun intended). Unfortunately, that usually means I go for pages without anything actually happening. It really is amazing all the tables in my stories haven’t collapsed under the weight of all the exposition I’ve laden them with.

But I’m getting better at catching myself before I waste all that time and effort writing all those boring scenes. Instead of sitting my hero down at a table to talk, I try to get him to make a poor choice, the stupider the better.


Grounding the conflict in the hero’s decisions, making stuff his or her fault, raises the stakes in a satisfying and organic way that keeps the plot believable and inevitable. A lot of times it also has the benefit of taking the story in a completely unexpected, moreinteresting direction. That’s why it’s the best way to raise a story’s stakes.

But sometimes it just doesn’t work out where I can make the hero his own worst enemy. Last time I ran into such a situation (My characters were in a car for a protracted road trip.) I had the cops shoot out my hero’s back tire. That jammed him up good and it also helped me establish my world a little better. Since the cops were already on his tail the bullet out of the blue didn’t come off as contrived. Most importantly, it added tension; it upped the stakes. And that’s really the bottom line in a rough draft.

I have one final point about tension drains: not only is reading a high stakes story more entertaining, it’s a lot more fun to write, as well.