A WRITING EXERCISE THAT HELPS BUILD TENSION
Open your thesaurus; go to any letter in the alphabet. Pick words from that letter that prompts questions that may help you think about your characters, plot, setting, dialogue, actions, emotions, and especially tension. Then for every word, develop a question that can push you deeper into your story, hopefully building tension in your book, story, or scene.
I chose the letter “D,” because desire is the beginning of all tension. Your character wants something—whether it is an external goal, like the inheritance, the murderer, or a lover; or an internal motivation, such as confidence, freedom, acceptance, or maybe to be understood by someone. Desire can be dampened, dangerous, delayed, or denied. (Yeah, I’m leaning heavy on alliteration, but just in this one blog.)
See, I’m just playing around with words. Being playful is the heart of the creative process. Also, you can think of it as a working exercise in which you can use random words that will take you to unexpected, and yet productive, powerful places in our writing.
Here are the ones I pulled and the questions I drafted for each. The queries provide me tips, hints, and techniques that in turn give me ways to access new ideas for my novel.
Dilemma: What kinds of problems can I generate for my protagonist, Fiona?
Discord: Where can I create relationship issues between characters that make the story more complex and intriguing?
Draw (either stalemate or attraction): How can I bring in mistakes or misunderstandings that generate a stalemate? How can I illustrate the first attraction between characters and then continually enhance that attraction over time?
Denial = What element(s) in Fiona’s life can I deny her to thwart her primary desire, to gain acceptance from others when she’s unconventional?
Dream: How do I articulate Fiona’s dream or desire through action and dialogue?
Disaster: What natural disaster is logical and reasonable based on the setting and environment to add depth, complexity, and tension to the story?
Disappointment: How can I express disappointment through body language in various characters?
Danger: What dangers might my characters encounter that will force them to know themselves better?
Dire straits: What situations could I develop within the plot that create emotional tension and make characters have to fight for what they want?
Dogged problems: What problem(s) won’t go away; and therefore, continue to frustrate and inhibit Fiona in the pursuit of her longing?
Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. — E. L. Doctorow
FIND YOUR OWN PROMPTS
Replicate the exercise, or use my example as a launching pad. Plunge in and find the questions you need to answer for your story or scene. It can aid you in writing fiction, your memoir, a story, or a difficult scene.
What kind of success or struggles did you have with this approach? I’d like to hear from you.
2 thoughts on “BUILDING TENSION”
I really like this exercise! And I think it will also be helpful in developing coaching questions I can use with my coaching clients.
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I’m happy to know you can use it in other ways as well. You are smart to apply it in your own way. I hope others will too.
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