2019/01/10

Writing Tips: Conflict, Tension, and Action

Fury Road

Many writers labor under a common misconception about what makes a book feel fast-paced. Slamming chapters together with no space in-between doesn't necessarily give readers a sense of speed. In fact, it can do the opposite by bringing on action fatigue. Pacing has less to do with keeping lots of balls in the air than with with motivation.

Consider Mad Max: Fury Road. It's been described as a nonstop car chase, and George Miller is said to have storyboarded it that way, but look closely and you'll find several points where the action slows down or outright pauses so the characters can take stock of the situation, lick their wounds, and plan their next move. It just feels like the action never stops from the audience's point of view because the characters are so well-established and their motives are crystal clear.

Always remember:

  1. Storytelling is about manipulating the reader's perceptions. It's primarily emotional. Intellect is secondary.
  2. The physical nuts and bolts of a story rarely if ever have a direct 1:1 effect on readers' perceptions. In fact, the effect is often the opposite of what you'd expect. The relationship is almost like dream logic.

So counter-intuitively, a story that actually is nonstop action feels like a slog, whereas a story with one explosion every 5000 words can feel like a runaway roller coaster ride if you've got your characters and their motives clear in the reader's head.

To put it in wordsmithing terms, the element that fuels the plot and keeps the reader on the edge of his seat furiously turning pages to find out what happens next is dramatic tension. Conflict builds tension. Note that conflict and action are not the same thing. Conflict arises when a character in pursuit of a goal encounters an obstacle to getting what he wants. Action often releases tension by providing a measure of conflict resolution.

What this means is that the tension isn't necessarily where you think it is. Here's a simplified example.

  1. Max and his allies are trying to get their truck out of the mud.
  2. A wave of goons shows up to kill them. This is when the tension spikes.
  3. Max slaughters the goons. The tension is relieved.

The longer a fight scene, the more tension is reduced, Think of action as a tension release valve.

That doesn't mean you should pull an Indiana-Jones-shooting-the-swordsman routine every time. Balancing dramatic tension with satisfying conflict resolution is a delicate high wire act. Having the hero just blow through every challenge quickly desensitizes the reader until the appearance of new obstacles stops raising the tension entirely.

The trick is to have an overarching goal for the protagonist, regularly introduce new obstacles--and new kinds of obstacles--that ratchet up the tension, and have the hero believably overcome the obstacle without releasing all of the additional tension. Following every action scene, the dramatic tension should be at least a little higher than it was before the scene began. Think a series of peak and valleys where each peak and valley is higher than the last.

Dramatic tension should reach a crescendo in the third act climax. At that point, the story should downshift from rising action to falling action as loose ends are tied up and the last conflicts are resolved.

Since action scenes tend to actually relieve dramatic tension, there's no reason breaks in the action can't maintain or even heighten tension. These scenes are where characters can discuss the story's stakes, which is a great way to heighten tension. Think of any scene in an Ocean's movie where the characters are planning a heist. Showing you all the complex security measures they must defeat to succeed turns up the tension, even though the only action is a conversation between characters,

For the ultimate example of non-action tension building, look to The Empire Strikes Back. Many viewers erroneously think Luke's lightsaber duel with Vader is the movie's climax. It's not. Their discussion afterward is. It doesn't get any more dramatic than Vader's pivotal revelation. The resolution comes when Luke makes his choice and jumps.

Where to place the breaks? A piece of advice Jagi gave me that I try to use in every novel is to give the characters a chance to rest and reflect on their situation at least once per act. This serves as a recap of the story thus far for the reader's benefit and can build/maintain tension as explained above.

For some added action genre structural help, check out Lester Dent's Master Pulp Formula. It was devised for short stories, but it scales up to novels easily. Just divide your total word count by four, and replace the 1500 value with that number. It maps to three act structure pretty well, too.

4 comments:

  1. Brian, this is a great summary.

    For a more systematic approach to introducing rest-points, I really like Jim Butcher's write-up of the "scene/sequel" approach:

    https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2647.html

    https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2880.html

    Certainly one could describe Butcher's novels as action-packed, yet he follows this formula quite faithfully.

    As for Lester Dent, I can testify from my own experience that his 6,000 word formula works very well for structuring 4-chapter sequences within a novel. I think the traditional 4-act structure might be a better model for the macro-level, just because it's geared properly. The Dent and the 4-act structure have a pretty striking correspondence.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'll cosign everything you just recommended.

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  2. David and Brian,

    Thanks very much for the post and the links. Very helpful advice

    xavier

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  3. Have any of you looked into The Story Grid? It teaches you how to be your own editor first, even if it is a loooong process.

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