Once you’ve finished writing a scene it’s important to ask yourself: How do I take it to the next level? How can I take the tension up a notch? Your craft can always be improved and finding a way to raise the stakes is worth exploring.
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, identifies several things you can do to raise the reader’s emotions.
1. Suffering — Pain, either physical or emotional
“The most powerful uses of physical and emotional pain are somewhere between the trivial and the unbearable.”
When the suffering isn’t great enough, the reader isn’t emotionally invested. When the suffering is too great in fiction, the reader withdraws, unable to cope. Fictional pain CAN be too difficult to bear and a reader can only stand so much before he withdraws and put the book down—permanently. Finding that balance is key.
“Suffering loses effectiveness with repetition.” Too much can lose its impact and/or be interpreted as whining. No one wants to read about a whiner. Card recommends leaving out sobbing, moaning, and too much gore for that very reason.
“If your characters cry, your reader wont’ have to; if your characters have good reason to cry and don’t, your readers will do the weeping.” And that my friends, is a golden nugget. Write it down.
Agony which a character INFLICTS ON HIMSELF can make a scene utterly unforgettable. This means that random things aren’t only happening to a character, but he is making CHOICES based on what’s happening. Having a character choose between something good and something better (or the opposite) is a powerful tool, especially when he is losing something because of his choices. I see this a lot. Things are happening but the main character is not making choices about them. Everything is just happening TO him, not because of him or in spite of him. It’s frustrating. To care about a character we have to see them make difficult choices and we have to see the consequences—good and bad.
“Sacrifice, in other words — is far more intense than pain alone.”
Jeopardy is anticipated pain or loss. Sometimes the ANTICIPATION is more potent than the actual pain or loss. The dentist is a prime example.
“When a character is threatened with something bad, the audience focuses on him. The more helpless the character and the more terrible the danger, the more importance the audience will attach to the character.”
I like that quote but I think I would have replaced the word “helpless” with “vulnerable.” Regardless, that quote illustrates the importance of proper pacing, building the tension, adding obstacles, making your character more vulnerable in order to increase the threat and possible loss.
I love Dan Brown and in my opinion he’s an expert at jeopardy. In The Lost Symbol, many of his characters experienced unbearable physical pain (a hand being cut off, drowning, a woman left to die by having her blood drained) and yet they all had something greater to lose.
4. Sexual Tension
“Sexual tension is related to jeopardy. In fact, you could call it “jeopardy of sex.””
An audience loves to root for two characters that have romantic potential. Card recommends making them “equals” whether it be in attractiveness, talents, social position, etc. It needs to be a good match. Think Peta and Katniss in Hunger Games. At first they were unequal on many levels—economic status, looks, physical capabilities—and yet Suzanne Collins found a way to make them equals, endearing one to the other. They made a good team.
Now the tough part. Once characters come together sexually, the tension part is over.
“Sexual tension intensifies the audience’s involvement with all characters involved. However, as several TV series have discovered to their sorrow, tension dissipates when characters come together in sexual harmony.”
This will be your call and I’ve seen it done both ways. I will admit I’ve read a 600 page book waiting for two characters to finally have sex already, and they never did. I sort of felt cheated, but honestly if they’d succumbed on page 32 I would have stopped there. Minus the sexual tension, it wasn’t that good of a book. This illustrates how sexual tension can pull readers forward.
5. Signs and Portents
“Another way to increase the reader’s intensity is to connect a character with the world around her, so that her fate is seen to have much wider consequences than her private loss or gain.”
I like to think of this as the universe either working towards or against your character, often in physical ways. Your character is trying to flee from her captor and it starts raining, making her mountainous climb treacherous. Card uses the arc of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Arc as an example — its opening unleashes the power and wrath of God to the unworthy, demonstrating there are other forces at work.
“Even when you’re trying for more subtlety, however, signs and portents are still vital tools in drawing your reader more intensely into the tale. You simply disguise the cosmic connections a little better. The great storm becomes a gentle drizzle; the flaming sky becomes a sweltering day; the roll of thunder becomes a distant siren in the city; the famine becomes the wilting of a flower in the window.”
Quotes taken from Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This is a great book by the way; a wealth of usable information.
by Nichole Jarnagin