The structure of the story isn’t the only thing that matters. If you want to engage your audience, add tension or conflict that matters. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who has sat through a production of Waiting For Godot.
When you add tension to a story, you give the audience something to care about, and you get them asking questions. The tension should be the force that moves your main character(s) to change.
Yes, tension might be uncomfortable. It might even be painful, but there is a good reason to add it.
Most people avoid pressure, tension, conflict and pain at all cost. We don’t like it. That’s why it matters in your story. If you’ve built a structure that the audience can relate to, you can use your characters to show them that whatever challenge they are facing isn’t insurmountable.
In real life, we avoid tension, often at all costs. We don’t want to be tense, and we don’t like tense situations. And we don’t want others around us to be tense (although, some people are really into drama).
Here are some thoughts on using tension to build your stories.
Conflict fuels interest and connection
In a business setting, your story should have a moral. Even if you can easily communicate that moral, what’s the point of using a story if there is no challenge?
Challenges are what shapes the character. Challenges also shape the audience because they keep the audience locked into your story. They provide the motive, intention or desire that moves the characters journey forward. They help demonstrate that there is always an inherent conflict between the character’s true self and some other force.
Luckily you don’t have to figure out how to add challenges because we can just borrow from the seven types of narrative conflict.
- Man vs. Man – a relational conflict with another person.
- Man vs. Himself – an internal conflict with yourself.
- Man vs. Society – a social conflict against a group of characters.
- Man vs. Nature – an external conflict between what is natural and what is material.
- Man vs. Machine – A conflict with the paranormal or technology and our inherent skepticism with technologies.
- Man vs. Fate/God – an internal or external conflict with the supernatural.
Here’s an example of how to add tension to your story.
This story can go in a lot of directions. Especially since we still don’t know whether the boy or girl is the main character. The point is that we added resistance. Here are some questions you could ask to move the story along:
- What is the character trying to achieve?
- What is the “real” challenge here?
- Why is the challenge there?
- What needs to be done to remove the pressure?
- What will stand in the way of removing the obstacle(s)
Escalate the challenge by adding opposition or competition
Most stories have a protagonist (your main character or “hero”). To raise the stakes for the hero add an antagonist (the enemy). The purpose of the enemy is to stand in the way of the hero while they pursue their intentions. The cool thing is that antagonist can be directly related to the narrative you choose (e.g., man vs. machine or man vs. man). It can be internal or external to the main character – as long as it creates a conflict.
Questions you can ask about the opposition:
- Who is the “challenger”?
- Is the opposition internal, external or both?
- Why is this resistance critical to the development of the character?
- What steps will the hero take to overcome the opposition?
- Is the opposition a rival or is the hero an underdog?
The challenge should grow as the opposition grows
Introducing an enemy won’t be enough to sustain a story. Overcoming the challenges presented by the opposition shouldn’t be easy for your hero. They should either change the character of the protagonist or reveal some factors that guide the direction of the story. It is also an excellent way to add twists to give the story variety. The best story will move beyond the beginning tensions like “the girl said no” and explore the story beyond the resistance that got it going.
Question you can ask about rising action:
- Can you use an embarrassing situation to rise the tension?
- How do you demonstrate that the character is changing?
Make change the point of your story
In the end, you have to bring the story to a resolution that supports the message you are trying to get across to your audience. Make sure that the events of the story cause a material change in the circumstances of your main character. Meaningful stories change the situation or people in meaningful ways. Ask yourself not only what the sequence of events are, but also how those events will change your character.
Questions you can ask about resolution:
- Did the main character experience some change?
- Did the protagonist change?
- Did the main character find out that nothing needed to change?