3 Lessons about Story Tension Ripped from my Labor Day Weekend

all stories are tension-driven.I thought we were prepared.

Boxes sat filled in the living room. Conscripted labor, also known as our friends, came over to help us move. One friend brought a van for us to use. I went out to park our truck in front of our place.

“It’s all going according to the plan”, I thought. Then I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing.

What a day for my battery to die!

 One vehicle down, an evening spent retrieving a new battery, one less day to move into our new apartment.

Tension comes from characters not getting what they desire.

 I desire to move to a new apartment. Obstacles are placed in my way to prevent it. Understand? Great, let’s move on.

Lesson One- The thriller isn’t the only genre that can use the ticking clock to raise tension.

 All good thrillers have some aspect of a ticking clock – if the hero isn’t successful at a certain point in time the kidnapped child gets killed, the bad guys get away, the bomb goes off etc. This clock naturally escalates tension, which is your goal throughout the story. A good writer will keep the reader aware that time is running out.

My moving woes have a ticking clock and it’s not a thriller, but simply a “slice of life” tale.

In the same way, a romance can have a ticking clock. Stable hand Juanita loves Humberto, but he is marrying another woman on Sunday unless Juanita can show him the love he’s been looking for has been shoveling horse dung in his stables the whole time. The closer it gets to Sunday, the higher the tension. (Warning: Be careful not to be repetitive. The closer to the wedding you begin the story, the better.)

Back to the story.

It was Saturday evening and most of our boxes had been moved into our new living room.

My wife threw some towels into the washing machine before we left to get another load of boxes from our old apartment. When we returned, the laminate flooring looked oddly shiny.

When we turned on the lights, we saw our “new” apartment was flooded.

Water soaked the bottom of our boxes. I called the office. At that hour, all I got was the answering service. They called maintenance. We waited two hour.

In those two hour, I called two more times. I paced the floor. I questioned the decision to move. Was the maintenance man even going to show up on a holiday weekend? Had I doomed us to living in a hovel for the next year? Would we have to evacuate in order to fix this mess? How could I make such a terrible decision?

Lesson Two – Tension is best when it involves more than an external struggle.

The doubt and worry I experienced is more compelling than the setback of a flooded apartment. The external struggle needed to be wed to the internal struggle to get maximum impact.

Our little adventure would be EVEN MORE compelling if a third struggle was also introduced- an interpersonal struggle. For instance, if my wife became angry with me during this frustrating time, this would ratchet up the tension (Luckily, she didn’t. She was calmer than me during the situation, probably as a result of sheer exhaustion).

We heard a knock on the door.

 The maintenance man showed up in flip-flops. He checked the washing machine and it turned out the clamp on a hose was bad. After replacing it, he helped us clean up the water still on the floor. Foretunatly, most of the boxes that got wet were kitchen items and not electronics.

Lesson Three – Always try to ratchet up the tension.

 Having lived this story, I believe it had tension enough. But if I were writing it, would I have ended it with a dude in flip-flops changing a hose?

If this were the middle of the story, entreating the maintenance man or being at the mercy of a disgruntled answering service employee makes good drama.

But at the end of the story? I’m not so sure.

Maybe the protagonist should have been the main catalyst for resolving the tension. What if flip-flop guy never came? What if I had to roam the apartment complex to find him or go to his house where he was drunk and persuaded him to take care of the washing machine?

When considering your story possibilities, tension should be king.

Steven James says “…there’s no such thing as a plot-driven or character-driven story…All stories are tension-driven.”

In other words, plots and characters are propelled forward by the tension they create. Without tension, even the most action-filled scenes will become boring and the most unique characters will eventually cause the reader to yawn.

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightlyBonus Lesson – Don’t get upset over the inconveniences of life.

 This one is both life lesson and writing lesson. While you might consider a flooded apartment more than an “inconvenience” (I admit I didn’t handle it well), I certainly can imagine worse situations.

I spend way too much time raging against the little setbacks of life.

GK Chesterton had this to say about inconveniences:

“Did you ever hear a small boy complain about having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No, for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetic pleasure. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains…

 “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

 For the writer, I think his words are particularly poignant. Are we missing the adventure in life’s inconviences? Could we, as writers, instead be using the inconvenieces of life to spark our imaginations?