What keeps a reader interested, reading late into the night, even when they have that important meeting at work the next day? What prevents a reader from wandering off to clean the breakfast nook or play a video game? What makes a story vital, exciting, and dynamic?
Intensity, that's what.
An intense story grips the reader, making her need to keep reading, need to know what happens next. Intense stories are the ones that make the fourteen-year-old sit there on the couch and say, “Wow. That kicked ass!”
We want to write intense stories, because they're the ones that get read, remembered, and talked about. In the end, intense stories are the ones that sell, especially in genre fiction. If given the choice between a contemplative bout of navel-gazing and a rip roaring adventure, readers tend to pick the latter. That doesn't mean that there's no room for the former, but let's be honest here: we want to fish from the wider, deeper pond when we're submitting stories. We're already running uphill in the driving snow, just trying to get through to anyone. We don't want to limit ourselves further with a story that, to most markets, is a non-starter.
So, what is intensity and how do we put it into our stories? Many authors, editors, and teachers like to say, “Conflict on every page.”
That doesn't mean that there has to be constant fist fighting and gun/knife/swordplay, but it does illuminate one method of creating intensity. Physical conflict, at least the kind where a character stands a chance to be injured or killed, is certainly the most literal embodiment of conflict. It's not the only one, however. When characters are striving their uttermost to achieve a goal that seems out of reach, that's conflict. When characters suddenly begin to doubt all the motives they've ever had, that's conflict. When characters stand up and refuse to do a deed that they feel is wrong, that's conflict. When they, on the other hand, compromise their morals to achieve an end, that's conflict, too.
Anytime a character faces a tough situation or a tough choice, that creates conflict for that character. Should she stay or go? Should she fight or run? Should she choose the easy, safe road or one that's going to involve risk? We're all conflicted about the small stuff in life, and often the big stuff, too. Even if it isn't fight or flight, our decisions can be nettlesome. All those decisions, in the end, become us. It's no different for fictional characters—only the scale is altered.
Here's a great truth of fiction writing: our characters have to lead difficult, even perilous lives. They have to be put under great strain and generally have a tough time. We don't want to read stories about their “normal” days. We assume that they have quiet days, and we can allude to normalcy, but when we're reading, we want to hear about the good stuff. We want them in turmoil, facing difficult circumstances that will test them and change them. We want the stakes to be high—for them, and possibly for others they care about. Intensity comes from conflict, if that conflict is well executed and believable. Intensity comes from hitting the characters where it hurts, giving them problems they don't think they can overcome, and challenging them physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Be mean to your characters—readers are sadistic, and they like that stuff. It sounds crazy, but think back to the stories that you really liked as a kid. In most of them, I bet that the character was having all sorts of trouble. Think about the simplest of stories, like folk tales and nursery rhymes. The three little pigs didn't get good at building houses out of brick because they thought it would improve their property values. They needed that brick house, or the wolf would eat them. Scheherezade needed to tell her tales well, because her evil husband would kill her if he lost interest. That's a tense situation.
Now, some would disagree with this, but I believe that, like everything else, tension can be overplayed. If your story goes far beyond the realms of human endurance, never letting a character have even a moment's rest, I think that blows your credibility. You don't have to go deeply into a character's “lunch break” from the horrors of the story, but if a tale takes place over months or years, it's clear that there will have to be lulls in the action. If anyone watches the show 24 with a critical eye, you know that one guy can't do that much in that time, that often. Jack Bauer would be a physically broken emotional wreck by the end of season two. Not to mention, a lot of physicists would be beating down his door for being everywhere at once. Still, the intensity in the story is such that we're willing to overlook small (or large) lapses in logic.
In the format of the written word, readers are not so forgiving. They'll eventually need to know that your characters sleep, eat, and use the restroom from time to time. If you stress your character to the breaking point, they'll have to break. Really. Having a character lose his nerve, fall apart emotionally, or otherwise be unable to continue is not a bad thing. Readers identify with characters that have limits. Why? because we're all limited, we're all frail on some level. Yes, we want to see heroic characters push on until the bitter end, but perhaps the bitter end for them comes before the victory is won. Maybe they need help. Or maybe—the worst happens.
It's okay for characters to fail, fall, or die. These things happen. If it's totally unimaginable that a character could survive the horrible circumstances of your story, don't be seduced by the idea of a happy ending and ruin the continuity by having some miracle save the hero. Heroes make their living succeeding where they shouldn't, living where others wouldn't. Living on when, realistically, they couldn't, however, dissolves the intensity of the story, since the reader no longer believes in the ultimate consequences of the tale. (That's a reason I'm dead-set against characters returning from the dead, but that is another story.)
If you're concerned with dissolving the tension when your character finally crashes or overcomes one of the hurdles of the story, there are a few things you can do to keep the tension high. One tactic is to create a cascading, geometric progression of difficulties. For instance you could have the first hurdle reveal the full scope of the problem at hand, so that one victory will be followed by a sobering truth. The second hurdle may seem to hold the key to everything, but after attaining it, those hopes could be dashed, revealing it as a false lead or a further widening of the conflict. The third hurdle in the story could seem insurmountable, leading the character to question whether or not his motives from the beginning were even valid. This can go on as long as the story requires. As soon as the character sits back for a moment and thinks, “Well, I'm okay now,” we find out something that makes it clear that this is anything but true. Every perceived victory throws the conflict further out of control, increasing the stakes, making the possibility of victory more remote.
Another tactic for holding a story's momentum is to have multiple conflicts occurring in different places. This can help you keep the intensity of the book high without putting so much pressure on you to “top yourself” with each plot twist. You can alternate between conflicts, always keeping the reader apprehensive. When one area of conflict dies down, you can focus on another character's plight, thereby maintaining your intensity.
Also, remember that conflicts are not always “concrete” things, like your formidable swordswoman fighting the evil Dronjak raiders of the Northern Reach. Many conflicts are internal, such as the aforementioned swordswoman knowing that the Dronjak are not really evil, but only striving for arable farmland with which to feed their people. She may be consumed with guilt for all the blood she's spilled in the name of a king she knows to be a conniving, underhanded snake.
Conflict can also be promulgated in the reader's mind. This can happen when the reader is aware of things that the character is not. For instance, if the reader is aware that Juliet isn't dead, but only sleeping on the slab in the crypt (weird, but hey...), she knows the awful mistake Romeo makes when he chooses to kill himself. Using reader knowledge against character knowledge can really make for heart-wrenching scenes. When the reader knows the character has it all wrong, and is headed for ruin, that will fill them with the urge to shout at the character, “No, don't do it! Just wait!” that's intensity. If the reader is reading with their heart, you have them. It's a good story. You've done your job.
Here's another news flash, something that takes many of us a book or three to figure out: Characters can be wrong. They can be fallible. Big mistakes are one of the great plot devices at your disposal. Most of the classical stories in literature are based upon a character who is powerful, but fallible. The character has some great downfall that ruins everything. You don't have to write tragedies, of course, but allowing characters to fail, especially in spectacular fashion, can sometimes make for the most dramatic story lines, the ones with the most intensity. In the parlance of the Bible, you have to fall in order to be redeemed.
When we read, we're agreeing to go along with the author, to sublimate our concerns about next month's rent, to ignore our roommates as they're playing on the Nintendo. We're taking time away from other pursuits, some of which may be important. In order to justify this gift of time our readers tender up, we as authors must give them something vibrant, exciting, well-crafted, and meaningful. It's our only stock in trade, so we can't afford to pawn off second-rate merchandise. If we can present a story with far-reaching consequences, with emotional turmoil, with the Stygian depths of despair and the august heights of triumph—that's going to justify the reader's faith in us. We must go beyond the norm, we must present a tale outside the tired rank and file. It has to be more intense than the lives our readers are leading.
Using all the tactics discussed above (not to mention a myriad of others you may think of on your own), along with good structure and solid line-by-line style, you can write a story that will run around in your readers' heads for years. If you do it right, there will be a few people who will keep thinking about your story, whose lives may actually be altered in small ways by the words you wrote down. With words, you can wield great magic, but that sorcery is neither quick nor simple. It takes work, time, and sometimes tears. If it means enough to you, you'll pay the cost and cast the runes.
Good luck, and happy writing.
Next time: Emotion and Intent