We’ve spent a lot of time on the fact that your book needs to revolutionize your reader’s life in order to get them really excited. Here’s the catch, though: If you promise revolution and don’t deliver it, you’re better off not writing a book at all.
Make sure the amount of hype you give to any idea in your book matches up with how important the idea actually is. Don’t just trust your gut on this; get other people’s opinions on the relative merits of each of your concepts.
Once you know which ideas are the most significant and which are more minor, build your readers’ tension in proportion to those levels of importance. When leading up to the biggest idea in the book, milk it. When leading up to a less life-changing idea, don’t. If every chapter ends with something like, “And the NEXT chapter is going to CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER ZOMG!” your readers will quickly become disillusioned. Save the drama for chapters that actually warrant it.
A good way to justify excitement for the really big idea in your book is to connect each smaller idea to it as you go. Say chapter three covers a minor idea. You introduce it as such, but you build tension by connecting it back to the main point, e.g. “When we get to chapter X, you’ll see why this really matters.” This piques the reader’s curiosity about chapter X and starts setting them up for it ahead of time. It also builds tension in a way that justifies itself throughout the book: “This idea is important because it connects to this bigger idea that is more important.”
Assuming your book’s overall concept is solid, this will keep readers’ excitement growing in a way that avoids the major letdown of unjustified hype.
What books have you read that puffed themselves up in a way that worked? What books have you read that didn’t?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
The tension in your rising action needs to match the significance of your climax. If you do a great job of building drama but your climax is weak, all the energy in your book will fizzle.
Here are four questions to ask yourself to check whether or not your tension-building is justified:
1. What are the stakes?
What do the main characters stand to lose if they fail? What is at stake here? The bigger the stakes, the more justified the tension.
Your book’s genre will play a big part in determining the importance of different kinds of stakes. If it’s a romance, breaking up is the worst case scenario. If it’s an action-adventure story, you might risk the loss of an entire population. For comedy, you can have whatever you want at stake as long as the characters are really invested in it. (Every single episode of Seinfeld revolves around this principle.)
Figure out the stakes in your story, and then look at how much the characters care about them. Is their investment justified?
If you answered no to that last question and you’re not writing comedy, you need to raise the stakes in your story. (You could also reduce the characters’ investment, but that’s usually not a great idea.) You can do this either by putting something else at stake, or by giving the characters better reasons to care about the thing currently at stake (see #4 for more on this).
2. Does anyone outside the story care?
Will the outcome of the story affect anyone besides the main characters? If the protagonist screws up and the only person to suffer is him/herself, you probably don’t want to describe failure as “the end of the world” or any other such hyperbole. It makes the character look egocentric and melodramatic.
If you do have a lot of doomsday-type language around an outcome that only affects a few people, you have two options. Raise the stakes so that a negative outcome affects everyone (see above), or modify the characters’ dialogue to reflect the actual situation.
There’s nothing wrong with a character who is invested in an outcome that only affects him/herself. Every single person on the planet lives through scenarios like that every day. If that’s the story you’re telling, tell it proudly. Just make sure the character keeps the situation in proper perspective.
3. Have I used this type of tension before?
The more times you use a particular plot point to justify tension, the less effective it becomes. Nobody worries when Princess Peach gets kidnapped in a Mario game because, well, that’s pretty much the entire franchise. It no longer serves as a way to justify high emotional stakes because it’s been used so many times.
Fortunately for the Mario development team, the series’ popularity revolves more around the gameplay and less around the storyline. For your book, that’s not the case. If you find yourself using the same stakes to justify the story’s tension over and over, change it up. Add variety. Risk other things, people, and outcomes. Does your protagonist risk losing his job a lot? Try having him risk his integrity in order to keep it. Does your character need to save the world every other day? Have her save one particular person she cares about, or maybe even herself. No matter what your go-to drama-builder is, you can always use other scenarios to justify new kinds of tension.
4. Have I adequately shown the cost of failure?
In The Avengers, aliens destroy a good part of New York City. (Rampant destruction in a superhero movie? You lie!) This comes across as collateral damage because the audience is far more invested in whether or not the characters we actually know and care about will survive.
You may have end-of-the-world stakes in your story, but unless you show the reader why they should care about said apocalypse, your dramatic tension will feel unwarranted. Show the characters caring about what happens. Show their fears of a negative outcome. Let the reader know what they stand to lose and why it’s important to them. Build empathy with your protagonists. The greater the empathy, the easier it will be to justify the tension. In the best cases, you can create enough character-reader empathy that all you have to do is say, “The character cares about this,” and the reader will instantly agree.
What other strategies do you use for justifying your dramatic tension?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner