A lesson in tension from Argo

A few nights ago, I watched Argo.

It’s actually the second way I saw it, so this time round gave me a chance to think about its story in writing terms.

See… there’s actually an awesome lesson in tension in that movie.

It works like this:

Give the main character a shortage of resources. Put him into a very difficult, life altering situation. Then, make sure that even the readers know how tenuous his/her position is.

In Argo, the CIA wants to save six Americans. So you’d think that breaks the resource part of the rule.

Except, things went wrong in Iran so fast that they’re left reeling. And the only way they can save the six is by a very far-fetched plan. They can’t put together anything better together, because they literally don’t have the time.

Why? Because they know the revolutionary guard will find them any moment now, and odds are they’ll all get killed.

So not only do we know the stakes early on in the movie, we also know that beating the stakes and attaining the goal is a long-shot. Because there is no James Bond to swoop in and save the day. There are no super powers. And because it’s set in the 1970’s, there’s no internet, no cell phones, no technology that we’re used to seeing in the movies.

It works the same way in books. If you have the reader invested in the characters and what will happens to them, things go from zero to incredibly tense if you don’t know if they’ll actually make it out of the precarious situation they’re in. And you’ll want them to, more than anything else in the story. And that desire from you vs. all the odds against the desire coming true is where the tension comes from.

In books, a good example it The Hunger Games. We want Katniss to survive, but every single thing is stacked against her. From her own personality to her inexperience, to the government…

Harry Potter is expected to beat Voldemort, but the whole time, you can’t help feeling that he’s ill-prepared for it.

The list goes on, but I’ll leave it to you to to share more examples. ­čÖé


No, nothing to do with my considerable time constraints today.

I’m talking about tension in a story. And how I got it wrong for a considerable portion of mine.

It started at the very beginning of my Doorways crits. My one CP extraordinaire, M Pax, kept asking me to let her see into one MC’s past. And I wouldn’t, because, well, she was just as coy with me. Why should I share info when my MC wanted to let it come out in her own good time?

Besides, I thought, the mystery about her past just adds to the tension.

True. But as this post points out, it adds to the wrong sort of tension. After I read this post, I got to thinking about Doorways. And realized what a huge mistake I’d made. I ended up spending the greater part of my day rooting out and fixing it. Luckily for me, a few subtle changes were enough, but it could have been a lot worse. Which is why I’m writing about it today┬áas well.

Real tension in a story comes from the fact that characters have questions and goals. We readers experience tension because they don’t know if those questions will be answered or the goals attained. We hope they will be, but we know that possibly they won’t. So we read on, hoping (and if the writer is really good, praying) that things will end up the way we and the character want them to.

The reason why we care this much is that by the time the goals and questions become known, we feel like we know the character. We can’t care if we don’t see why the goals and question are important to the character. So you can’t make us care if you don’t give us the information we need to bond with the characters.

Yes… the mystery in the character’s past adds to tension, but unless it’s the foundation of the plot (e.g. if the character’s question is about his/her past), it will make the reader hurl the book to the nearest wall.

The blog post above gave a few examples of bad tension, so I’m just going to let you go there to read them. But to sum it up, I’m now thinking about tension like this: Tension should be forward looking. It should be about the story going forward to the end and about whether the end will be the one the reader wants. ┬á

If your tension is back looking, i.e. coming from the fact that the reader isn’t being allowed to see into a main character’s past, odds are pretty great that you’ll be annoying the life out of your reader.

Trust me. When I put my reader cap on and read my MC’s intro, I wanted to strangle the writer.

So do you also write your tension to be back-looking? How do you make sure that the tension in your story doesn’t annoy the reader?

PS: Mary. So sorry about Callan. She’s a lot better now. ;-P

A to Z Challenge: Raising Stakes

On N-day, I mentioned that raising the stakes make a huge difference to the middle of a book, but that I’d do another post about it. Well, today is that day.

Stakes make a difference, because stakes keep the tension in a story as tight as you want it to be.


´╗┐Think of it as a poker game. The more you put into the pot, the greater your stake will be in winning the game. It becomes more important to you. If you put $500 into the pot,┬á the game will be really tense, but not as tense as putting $50000 in. And DEFINITELY not as tense as putting in the last $50000 that you own. The first is pretty big situation, the second bigger. The last is life changing.

Ideally speaking, you want the story to start as the poker players (your characters) are about to start playing. And then, with every game, they increase their bets, increasing their stakes in each game (chapter). If you really want to get things tense, you can lock each player in and let someone else (the bad character, perhaps?) increase the bets for them.

The reason why I say this is ideal is because the reader gets to know the character before all hell breaks loose. So they know who the character is. Then as the stakes increase, we get to know them better. We learn to care about them and how they react to challenges. And then just as the reader gets to the middle and thinks the character can’t take more, that final $50000 game starts. The life changer. The one that will ultimately change that character – for better or worse – forever. That’s good reading.

Sometimes, though, the poker game is longer than others. For example in a series, there might be a few big rounds┬átowards the end of each book. Rounds so big that the reader thinks that it’s the life changer. But the real life┬áchanger will occur in the last book. Otherwise, why would the reader bother sitting through the stories after that?

So, if your middle is sagging, odds are that it’s because none of your characters are making any bets. There’s nothing happening to make the reader worry about what the character stands to lose. And that’s a huge problem when your story is about to go towards the climax. After all, the climax is about where the character wins or loses the most.

Make sure that the reader can sense what’s at stake. You don’t need to spell it out. Just make it big enough to spot. Hint at the possible results of failure. And of success. And above all, give them a feeling of the odds.

And then for maximum tension: In the life changing round of the poker game that is your character’s story, force them to go for the royal flush.

Look Out for These:

1) Middle sagging because you either put the stakes too high too early, or didn’t raise the stakes.

2) Undefined stakes.

3) CPs and betas doubting why they should be caring.

What’s your approach to stakes in a story?