We all may claim that we don’t like pressure in our lives, but we sure do enjoy it in our entertainment. We love to see characters on television, in movies, and in books being put through the ringer. Will the hero find his daughter, diffuse the bomb, escape the island, win the ball game? Whatever is at stake, we want to see people under pressure. Better them than us, right?
You have to deliver on this desire in your writing. Crafting a well-written story means that you are ramping up the drama to a nail-chewing, gut-churning level that will keep your audience turning pages even if their house is on fire.
There are a number of ways you can ramp up the drama to keep the energy building to a crescendo. But there are four tried and true areas of focus where you can always find a source of dramatic friction that can be exploited to give your story real depth.
When a character’s convictions are challenged. In creating your main character, you must consider what their core beliefs are, nurture those beliefs, and show through action how those beliefs drive their decisions. Once that is done, then you mercilessly shove that character into a situation where those beliefs must be tossed aside. When a character is taken out of their comfort zone, they become unpredictable. There’s no telling what they might do to achieve their goal.
This is the pacifist who must kill to protect his family. This is the straight-arrow cop who must bend the law to catch a thief. This is the upstanding politician who must make a deal with a corrupt local boss if he wants to see his education bill pass. You get the picture.
Push your character into a corner. We all know the adage about the cornered animal. Well, people are animals, too. If you push them into a corner, they will defend themselves, violently if necessary. The whole point of pushing a character into a corner is that they are forced to act. If you’ve done your prep work, then you have created a situation where any decision your character makes will cost them something of great value. What will they choose? Either way the outcome is good drama.
The ticking time bomb. Be it literal or figurative, this is a dramatic device that never disappoints if it is applied correctly. Whether we’re talking about blowing up a football stadium, racing against time to find the cure for an epidemic, or raising the cash to save the house before the bank forecloses, the stakes must be clear from the start. And you need to be mindful of the time frame you are creating for this time-sensitive dilemma. Don’t risk slowing down the action by alternating the pacing as the story advances. Things need to be more harried as time goes by, and the build must steadily rise until it moves toward a conclusion like a runaway locomotive.
Surprise! Surprise! Sudden plot twists are pretty much essential in thrillers, but they can be of benefit in other forms of drama as well. The trick is to make sure whatever surprise you come up with remains true within the world of the story. There must be a reasonable explanation as to why the ex-husband returns seemingly out of nowhere in the third act. Or why the wonder weapon that was working perfectly well wasting aliens in the second act suddenly fails just when the hero thinks he’s saved the world.
Whatever that explanation may be, it should be introduced as a kernel earlier in the story, and it’s good to repeat that kernel at least one or two more times so it remains fresh in the reader’s mind. The main character surely doesn’t know what’s coming, but those kernels will give the reader a clue that something wicked this way comes. They just don’t know what. And when the big surprise comes, it will seem plausible and not like some cheesy last minute plot fix.
Any combination of these tactics can set fire to your story. But be careful not to throw obstacles into the mix for their own sake. Each new hurdle has to be tied in some way to the broader arc of the story, teased early in some fashion, and put your characters to the test.
Now go make your readers sweat.