Turning Up the Heat!

-- TURNING UP THE HEAT --

TECHNIQUES FOR CREATING TENSION ON THE PAGE:

Effective fiction drives toward crucible moments. A crucible moment is a turning point in the life of a story’s protagonist (generally). It is a moment of decision or critical action. After a crucible moment, the life of the protagonist and story characters will never be the same.

CRUCIBLE MOMENTS INCLUDE:

  • Unexpected revelations or epiphanies.
  • Lying to the self for purpose of maintaining the status quo. 
  • Coming to hard decisions or hard truths.
  • Compromising values or morality in some unexpected way.
  • Surprising the self with adherence to—or discovery of--values or moral code, when compelled. 
  • Being moved to unexpected physical action (sex, violence, other).
  • Escape from conflict/failure to act.
  • Major rejection of a plan, person or situation.
  • Reluctant acceptance of a plan, person, or situation.
  • Risking physical, psychological, professional or emotional death. 
  • Experiencing severe injury, physical loss, or death.
  • A religious/spiritual experience of some kind.
  • Loss of religion/spiritual certainty.
  • Psychotic or emotional “break”/loss of normal mental equilibrium.

CREATING A BOILING POINT:

Crucible moments come when contents (of a character’s life) are under pressure. So, effective fiction finds ways to add pressure to a character’s life, create a sense of apprehension and inevitability leading to the crucible moment, while playing out the lead-up to such moments. 

BOILING POINT CATALYSTS:

  • Opposite types of people brought together.
  • Characters who’ve injured each other in the past brought back together. 
  • Characters returning home to family wounds/family conflicts.
  • A character as “fish out of water” in some environment.
  • A day of reckoning or change for a community at a large.
  • Sickness, death, or birth of a significant figure in the protagonist’s life.
  • Sexual desire leading toward fulfillment or rejection.
  • A plan to end a significant relationship. 
  • Circumstances compelling a character to abandon the status quo and leave behind the familiar. 
  • A character making a new start: school, work, relationship, travel, relocating, etc.
  • A character in desperate need of some resource: money, time, esteem, etc.

TENSION THROUGH “COGNITIVE DISSONANCE:”

When the reader is forced to entertain two contradictory ideas or emotions at one time, this creates a state of cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable psychological state, which the reader will look to alleviate. Cognitive dissonance is the foundation of “micro-tension.”

WAYS TO CREATE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE:

  • Put readers into familiar narrative situations but deploy unexpected outcomes via character action or dialogue.
  • Bring secondary or tertiary emotions to the forefront when characters react to conflict. 
  • Explore unexpected areas of internalization/motivation for viewpoint characters. Create unexpected reasons behind their actions.
  • Explore incongruent visual details.
  • Explore incongruent metaphors/figurative language to express an emotional state or set of circumstances. 
  • Remember that you’re looking to take a reader to unexpected emotional places, but they should still be recognizably human/psychological justifiable. (In other words, you’re going to lose the reader if characters just act like maniacs all the time with no rhyme or reason behind their feelings of actions. ☺)

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