Put your character up a tree and then throw rocks at him.
This iconic advice is something every writer hears at some point and keeping it at the forefront of our minds when writing is one of the wisest things we can do. Not only must we make good on our back-jacket blurb promise that the protagonist will find themselves in an impossible situation of some kind (thanks to the twisted events we set in motion as part of the plot), we also want to ensure tension is on every page, hooking the reader and keeping them in thrall.
Tension is that beautiful feeling of anticipatory uncertainty that we seed in the reader’s mind:
I think there’s something more going on here…
What’s the significance of that, I wonder?
Uh-oh. This doesn’t sound good…
Wait…does that mean what I think it means?
Oh my gosh, what will happen now?
Big or small, tension creates a “need to know” within the reader: Who was that creepy guy standing in the middle of the moon-lit field, watching the farmhouse? When will the protagonist’s best friend admit her feelings? Why didn’t the killer strike when he could have?
Secrets, danger, desire, problems, complications, omissions, challenges, decisions, stakes…all of these are ingredients in a tension-rich story. But, to work, they all require one very important thing: emotional investment.
THE EMOTION—TENSION CONNECTION
Emotion and tension often go hand in hand. If emotion is low, chances are that story tension is also waning. When emotion is high and it’s written effectively, tension will most likely be on the rise. Tension is important in a story because it increases reader interest. When the hero’s outlook is grim, readers worry over his success. This worry translates into empathy with the character and a desire to keep reading to find out what happens. They become emotionally invested.
For us to encourage this emotional investment, we need to help readers feel close to our characters, meaning that effectively showing what they feel, and why, is crucial. Sometimes to keep the emotional intensity, we need to juice things up a bit. This is where emotional amplifiers come in.
WHAT IS AN EMOTION AMPLIFIER?
Hunger. Stress. Attraction. Exhaustion. Pain. Each of these is an amplifier—a state that can impact a character’s physical and mental condition and make them emotionally unstable. Amplifiers up the ante in a scene because they throw your characters off their game and make life more difficult. And because they can cause the character’s emotions to become volatile, they are much more likely to misstep and make a mistake. When their situation grows worse, readers are pulled in deeper, frantically flipping pages to find out what will happen next.
Adding the right amplifier at the worst time is akin to walking up to the tree your character is in and setting it on fire.
SPEAKING OF HUNGER…
As an example, let’s consider The Hunger Games. Tension is high throughout the story because of what’s at stake. But Collins doesn’t let it stay at that level. Instead, she ramps it up by adding stressors to Katniss’s situation. At the start of the games, Collins removes fresh water from the arena, thereby threatening dehydration and adding another life-or-death scenario for the heroine to worry about. She introduces the tracker jackers and their hallucinatory stings, increasing tension and the reader’s fear over the hero’s well-being. Like a sadistic Head Gamemaker, Collins never lets the heroine off the hook. She continues to throw Katniss new and more alarming problems that make it more and more difficult to survive an already impossible situation.
And the torture pays off. With each new amplifier, two important things are accomplished.
First, Katniss herself experiences heightened stress. Each amplifier makes it more difficult for her to think clearly and make good decisions. Poor decisions lead to more problems, which lead to heightened stress…it’s a continuing cycle that keeps the reader riveted as tension inches upward across the pages.
Secondly, these amplifiers heighten the heroine’s emotions. With each new stressor, Katniss becomes more afraid, paranoid, angry, or depressed. As readers, we feel those emotions right along with her. We’re drawn into her story and begin to root for her success in a way that guarantees we’ll keep reading the book until the very end.
LIKE ANY TOOL, USE AMPLIFIERS WITH CARE
In the case of the Hunger Games, applying amplifier after amplifier works, because the aim of the Gamekeepers is to push the tributes to their limits and break them, one by one. But this won’t be the case in every story. Consider which amplifiers might work best for your scene and choose one that offer the biggest payload. For example, if you know your character’s emotional soft spots, try an amplifier that has personal significance. It will affect them the most.
If you need help showing how your character’s behavior changes when affected by an amplifier, Becca and I created an Emotion Amplifier e-booklet as a companion to The Emotion Thesaurus. You can also find Emotion Amplifiers at One Stop for Writers, along with a helpful tutorial and tip sheet.
Have you used Emotion Amplifiers to increase the tension and up the stakes? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, an