Character arc (aka the internal plot) is essential for a satisfying story structure. You might have tension on every page and you might follow what you think is a winning structure, but if you don’t have a character arc, your story will fail to resonate with readers. Learn the key concepts for character arcs here.
The beginning has two roles: a structural one and a functional one. Here, I present a way of thinking about the first act’s plot points that may help you reconcile the need to hook the reader with the need to portray the so-called “normal world” of the story.
Do you take us to a point of conflict and then, rather than allow us to see it play out and get all worried about the outcome, you summarize it or just resolve it quickly? Stretching tension means you lengthen the scene but also make it more gripping. Don’t push the action off-stage or rush through it. Linger on the most tense moments of the story to maximize engagement.
“Escalating complications” is my preferred term for what’s commonly known as “rising action.” What is rising action? And how can you use it to maintain reader engagement in the middles of your scenes and stories? We take a lesson from iguanas and snakes here.
A story with momentum makes me want to know what’s going to happen next, and makes me care about the characters, objectives, conflicts, and action.
Let’s talk reader engagement. A writer can create tension and hook readers through three situations: mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.
Storytelling is a complex beast. There are lots of things that appeal to readers: poetic sentences, imaginative alternate realities, sympathetic and/or courageous characters, relatable problems, vicarious experience. But at the scene level, there is really just one simple concept that spurs the reader onward.
I recently came across this insightful analysis of suspense in the opening of the film Inglorious Basterds. In it, there’s a mention of an article from the Psychology journal, Frontiers in Psychology about Tension and Suspense. The authors, Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch, posit six components underlying suspense and tension, which I find useful in thinking about crafting scenes to engage your readers and get your characters into trouble.