When I laid out my formula of tension = uncertainty x stakes last week, I wrote at the end:
So we have uncertainty and we have stakes. Combine them and you get tension. But tension isn’t just a straight line through the narrative. It should be an arc, building toward the end and then exploding like a firework.
Laying tension out like an algebraic formula makes it clear how to build that arc. You multiply the tension by either raising the uncertainty or raising the stakes.
Let’s go back to the WW2 commando I mentioned in the last post. We can flesh out the rough beats of a story using the details I hinted at before.
Our hero gets his assignment: parachute with a commando unit into occupied France and secure the Nazi’s rocket plans.
Uncertainty: Low. The briefing scene at HQ makes it seem like everything’s been accounted for.
Stakes: Low. Yes, with this new rocket the Germans could incinerate London from the comfort of Berlin, but we know how the war turns out. Also, that’s a rather abstract danger. We as readers care more about one beloved character losing an arm than a city full of strangers dying.
The commando team is about to be dropped into France, but anti-aircraft guns shoot down their plane. Our hero and two other officers just barely make it out of the plane before it explodes.
Uncertainty: Rising. Before, we had a full commando squad; now we have three guys with whatever equipment they have in their packs. Can they complete the mission?
Stakes: same as before.
One of the other officers starts to lag behind. His teammates realize he was nicked by shrapnel in the explosion. They can slow the bleeding, but they need a surgeon to remove the metal and prevent an infection.
Stakes: Rising. There’s a chance we might lose a likeable supporting character, one of the protagonist’s buddies.
The commandos rendezvous with their French Resistance contact. But it’s not their contact – it’s a Nazi spy posing as him! They kill the Ratzi and find their original contact buried in the cellar, tortured to death.
Uncertainty: Rising. How much did he reveal before dying? Is the plan compromised?
Stakes: Rising. Now the team has to hustle before the Nazi spy’s failure to report is noticed.
Using the Nazi spy’s uniform, our protagonist poses as an officer to filch some first aid gear from a nearby camp. While there, he spots an old flame of his from his days at the University of Heidelburg, tending to injured soldiers. They lock eyes from across the tent.
Uncertainty: Rising. Did she recognize him? If she did, will she break his cover?
Stakes: Rising. The smart play would be to take off running. But now our hero has to know: what is she doing here? Is she an ardent Nazi or just going along with the cause? And does she still have feelings for him?
I’ll break off the beat-by-beat here, partly because you can see where I’m going with this and partly because it’s getting exhausting. That’s four consecutive beats where we’ve cranked the tension up on our beleaguered commando unit. At this point in the story, I would cool things down for our heroes just a bit. Maybe the old flame tracks our heroes down and gives them cover IDs so they can get into a party her husband the Baron is throwing. This eases the pressure off on their getting caught, but ratchets up the romantic tension. “I can’t believe you married him!” “I can’t believe you abandoned me!” And so on.
I hope the exercise, and the formula behind it, prove useful. Whether tension is the point of your story (as in thrillers and suspense novels) or simply part of the story, it’s not something you can ignore. Look at all the characters and events you have assembled. Examine how each of them contributes either to the uncertainty or the stakes. Then start cranking on the dials until the boiler screams.
If you want to use this formula to check my math, then buy a copy of Too Close to Miss, the crime thriller that readers are calling “a new spin on a classic thriller,” available on Kindle, Nook or iTunes.
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