Have you ever watched a Soap Opera? Ever notice how nothing really happens? I mean, it takes an entire week to make a pot of coffee. If there’s a shocking revelation, mouths will still be hanging open by the end of the episode. It seems everyone just stands around talking all the time. But despite the snail-like pace, it works.
Shows like Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless have been on since the Seventies, and they don’t even have car chases, explosions, or ticking timebombs (okay, there are some from time to time, and the occasional so-and-so came back from the dead storyline). Yet they keep people coming back day after day, glued to the action (or lack thereof). How do they do it?
We’ve covered conflict before, but let’s take a more in-depth look at those tricky scenes, where at first glance nothing seems to be happening, but under the surface, tension is broiling.
How To Add Tension To Actionless Scenes
1. Make Your Reader Care
First and foremost, if your reader doesn’t connect to the characters, why would they care about their bumps in the road? Soap Operas have been on as long as they have because it keeps people coming back for more. Why is that? It’s not the fast-paced action. It’s because people care about the characters. Fans will often talk about them as though they’re real people. They have a connection with them. Make your readers care about your characters and they’ll keep reading to find out what happens to them. Make them loveable, make them real, give them hopes, dreams, desires and faults.
2. The Bigger Picture
Once people care about your characters, increase the scope of the problem. Make the concerns of the individual affect their surroundings, either locally or globally. Sure, if Sally get’s a divorce, that would be sad for her, but maybe she won’t be able to afford to keep her outreach program running, which helps countless local teens. Or maybe it’s internet based and her divorce will affect teens all across the nation. In the world of Soap Operas, everyone is connected. The actions of one will always affect everyone else. Increase the stakes, and suddenly your character’s struggles and goals are much more important.
3. Secrets And Lies
Let the reader in on something that the character doesn’t know yet. This can be done either through third person perspective, or perhaps by writing from another character’s POV. If the reader knows that Stefano Dimera is lurking just around the corner, or that the person they’re on a date with is the murderer, the urgency of the scene is immediately intensified.
4. Opposing Desires
Disagreement creates tension in a conversation. When everyone gets along, there’s no conflict. A conversation laden with hostility and accusations can be just as shocking as a fist fight, and in some cases, even more so. A punch thrown can be satisfying, but a heated conversation without resolution can draw that tension out longer than that single chapter. No one in Soap Operas agrees on anything for very long. They all have very different, not to mention very strong, opinions. It seems there are constant power struggles between everyone.
5. The Believable Villain
Your character’s opposition should be believable, their opinions understandable. Better yet, their opinions should be right. Well, maybe not totally. Your MC might not agree, but have your reader see it from the villain’s perspective. More importantly, if the villain is just as determined to win as your MC, they will fight just as hard. Rock, meet hard place. Then the reader begins to doubt the outcome of the novel. Now they must keep reading to find out how it’s all going to turn out.
The opposition doesn’t have to be a true villain. Say your story is about a detective solving a murder. Maybe the murderer is a young college freshman with the world ahead of her. The murder was an accident. What if the antagonist is the girl’s mother who is simply trying to protect her daughter. Is that so bad? Can you really blame the mother? Hah! See? I made you hesitate. If the line between right and wrong starts to blur, your reader will begin to wonder how everything will turn out happily ever after, especially if they’re not even sure who to root for.
A heated conversation is not the time to describe the scenery. When you have a confrontation with someone, you’re not exactly smelling the roses are you? You’re pretty focused on what’s going on. Keep the descriptions to a minimum, such as gestures or where they’re standing in the room. And instead of using ‘he said with venom’, that should be made obvious by what he’s saying. Keep the conversation rapid-fire.
7. Drama Drama Drama
Pile it on thick. If things are bad, make them worse. Keep adding barriers and setbacks. If they overcome one, add a new one and make it even worse. When it comes to Soap Operas, when it rains, it pours.
Keep the conflicts at the forefront of your story by reminding the reader every once in a while. It doesn’t need to be in an obvious way. It could be as simple as having your character reflect on things, because their problems should be bad enough that it’s truly weighing on their mind all the time, affecting their day to day lives. It can also be done through speaking with other characters. If the tension is not constantly increasing as your novel progresses, things aren’t bad enough. Make it worse.
9. Unpredictable Characters
Your characters aren’t perfect. They have flaws like the rest of us. Demons that haunt them. If the barrier for your romantic couple to be together is the woman’s fear of commitment then take it to the next level: give the male lead a child. Now that’s a big commitment. Can she do it? Now take it even further. Make the child autistic, requiring a lot of special care and attention. If she’s already skittish, the reader has to wonder how it could ever work out in the end. And if their ability to succeed is in question, once again, the reader doubts the outcome of the novel. They will be compelled to keep reading to find out what happens.
10. Impossible Circumstances
If the reader can see how everything will work out happily ever after, then all that hard work you’ve put into creating barriers and conflicts goes to waste. Overcoming everything you set before you character should seem impossible. If it’s not impossible yet, if they see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s only half way through the book, throw them another curve ball, and make sure there’s no way around it… or so it should seem to the reader. Every day we face choices. Should I have the soup or the side salad? But your characters are larger than life. They face impossible choices. Make everything bigger, tougher to deal with, and when they finally do face down their problems, they’ll be more memorable for it.
Another less obvious way to increase tension is to place the characters in an uncomfortable place. A graveyard, a police station, a hospital. Even a family home can feel tense depending on how the character views it. If it’s a home filled with bad memories and resentment, it can add to the scene’s overall feeling of anxiety. Sure, we’d all like to own some of those mansions we see on Soap Operas, but when it comes to the scarier characters, it seems that their homes are always intimidating rather than impressive.
12. Take A Break
You’ll notice that Daytime TV isn’t always doom and gloom. After a particularly tense scene between characters, they will flash over to the happy couple that just got married, or the shopping trip between two friends. There will still be some form of conflict or perhaps the scene’s purpose is to give you a sense of ‘calm before the storm’, but that break in tension gives a good contrast. It allows the reader to relax for a moment. If someone is always on the edge of their seat, it can be a bit much. It can also have the opposite effect that you want – the tension can lose its effectiveness. So give your reader a break from time to time with a bit of comic relief or a happy moment between characters.
The Advantage To Writing
Whether your novel is written in first person or third, the advantage you have over Daytime Television is that you can get into your characters’ heads, reveal what they’re really thinking, how they really feel (without having them spill their guts to their companion in an unnatural way or talk to themselves in a corner in monolog fashion). This can be effective for revealing internal conflict, which can heighten the tension in a scene. If your romantic characters are arguing, but inside they both really want to apologize but are just to stubborn to do it, it can give a whole new feel to a scene.
So is it possible to have a tense scene without alien invasions, fights to the death on helicopters, or gunfights? Yes. It might take more work, but the effect can be much more powerful.
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