Work with Two or Three Characters
Never work with one character who is alone. Always work with two or three characters so that you can have “sides.” When you write just one person, you tend to rely on thoughts because there can be nothing at stake. It’s hard to create tension with a character alone onstage, lost in thought. We don’t see a lot there. We don’t have much to engage with as readers. Solo is boring. Two’s a game. Three is always interesting—because there is so much more opportunity for problems to arise.
Match Your Opponents
When do you leave a game early, before the final score? When it’s clear one side will win. Nothing is at stake in the fourth period when the score is 108–15. As a writer, the same rule applies. You will lose your reader unless you keep the stakes high.
The “sides,” the power struggle—the thing the person wants and the thing keeping her from getting it—have to be equally matched.
Power shifts generate and sustain tension. Review our formula for creating tension:
A person who wants something important badly, who is experiencing difficult obstacles that are keeping him/her from getting the things he/she wants.
Think of a sporting match. A good game. What do you notice? There are two sides. If your team goes out on the field to practice, the group doesn’t pretend to have a game against no one. You divide up, shirts and skins. You have to have sides.
In a great game, a really tense match, the kind you stay into triple overtime in pouring rain to see finalized, the sides are evenly matched—it’s not going to be a blowout.
Super close. Triple overtime. We in the stands are on the edges of our seats, worrying the whole time. Who is going to win? And, more important, how are they going to get from where they are now to that win? Each play is riveting. Every step, every pass, every glance matters.
If you are on the winning team, a blowout can be fun, but not for the spectators (i.e., the readers). For them, there is no tension. You don’t want to be the writer having all the fun—the piece has to work for the readers.