How to add jeopardy to your story before the main conflict starts

ministryofstoriesJeopardy is a sense of instability – and a powerful way to hook the reader.

Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.

What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.

Genre and generalisations

How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.

But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?

Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.

Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms

But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.

Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.

Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?

sidebarcropBeware of timebombs

Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.

Other characters
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?

When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:

  • relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
  • ways for characters to spoil things for each other
  • a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character

I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.

Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.

Thanks for the canned unease pic Ministryofstories.

Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!

If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter

 

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  1. #1 by Kathleen Pooler (@KathyPooler) on December 16, 2012 - 6:31 pm

    Hi Roz, These are great tips. I originally was going to lead up to my most dramatic lifetime moment but instead decided to open with it. Interesting how the story was reshaped (with the help of my awesome developmental editor, Dale Griffith Stamos after that and finally has some legs. I didn’t want to use up all my tension in the first chapter, but it turns out there’s plenty more tension building after that. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips!

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 16, 2012 - 7:42 pm

      Hi Kathleen! I think you’ve described an ‘aha’ moment here that many writers are struggling for. If you go looking for tension, explore your idea’s potential, there is often far more in there than you thought. And once your imagination takes flight you can really create something new and compelling – all from prodding the idea and saying ‘give me more’.

  2. #3 by DRMarvello on December 16, 2012 - 6:40 pm

    Thanks for the post, Roz: thought-provoking as usual.

    I find it easier to build jeopardy early in the story if I follow the “three disasters and an ending” guideline that Randy Ingermanson (Mr. “Snowflake Method”) espouses. I try to “set the hook” as early as possible, but the hook foreshadows the first disaster.

    Beyond that, I like Larry Brooks’ concept of “pinch points,” which serve as reminders that the villain is out there making trouble. Throw in a few characters who are working at odds with the protagonist, and you’ll have conflict on just about every page as many writing coaches recommend.

    For my genre, fantasy, the tension and conflict have to be fairly straightforward. Subtlety works fine, as long as the lead-up is fairly short. I know an author has done it right when I find myself chuckling and saying, “I knew it!” The trick seems to be hinting without giving away. I’m still working on that. The reactions you don’t want are, “Finally!” and, “Where did that come from?”

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 16, 2012 - 7:44 pm

      Hi Daniel! Disasters, pinch points.. they’re all ways to keep the pressure on.
      And excellent points about the reader’s response.We need to lead the reader and mislead at the same time, all with a sense that it was fair and inevitable. No wonder we need beta readers…

  3. #5 by mgm75 on December 16, 2012 - 10:11 pm

    I like to be teased as a reader – the promise that Something Big Is About To Happen is a very powerful hook for me; this was what got me so into Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Most of the book felt like one massive portent for things about to go horribly wrong.

    Of course, the writer must ultimately deliver or the reader will feel cheated.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 17, 2012 - 8:21 am

      Mgm, ‘something big is about to happen’ is exactly what I’m talking about. And without that feeling there’s no reason why the story starts where it does, goes where it does and ends where it does.

  4. #7 by cydmadsen on December 17, 2012 - 1:24 am

    Howdy, Roz. This is an element that’s so often missing in novels. I always think of any prose writing as a screenplay and imagine the opening scene. That’s what you write. It was Lew who taught me this–page 5 that hook has to be sunk deep (that’s screenplay page 5). From Dickens to Hemingway, they all start with a dangerous question planted in the reader’s mind. That’s what keeps the pages turning. Good luck naming your next book. That’s another difficult one, isn’t it.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 17, 2012 - 8:25 am

      Howdy, Cyd! Nice point about imagining the novel as a screenplay – screenplays definitely teach us to get our story moving. Although with prose we have an extra connection with the reader. This means our hook can be more internalised if necessary – for instance we can start with a character who is saying ‘I really cannot stand my wife any more’, which would be harder to do in a screenplay without a voice-over.

      • #9 by cydmadsen on December 18, 2012 - 4:35 pm

        Yep. When I was writing scripts, voice-overs were a no-no. So was dialogue. A lot has changed since then, starting with “Slingblade.” Believe it or not, I took a film class called “The Language Of Film” from a professor who could not nail down exactly what the language of film was. I told him language is a form and means of communication, and film primarily uses imagery to do so. He was stunned and say, “That’s it! Class, write that down.” I’ve seen a lot of films that use imagery that create an internal hook, and they do it beautifully. I fall asleep during action movies and sci-fi stuff like “Star Wars.” But those films that send out an emotional hook through imagery keep me awake. The trick is translating the visual into the written word. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the writer is challenged with condensing those words into a crisp sentence. It’s not easy being us :-)

        • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 20, 2012 - 8:43 am

          Class, write that down.
          ‘The internal hook’ – that’s a terrific way to put it. I’ve started reading Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain, and he creates a sense of unease with a shocking scene and then the visual echoes that show a character who can’t forget it. He never goes so far as to say ‘it the man’s reflection looked like the [shocking thing], he knows the reader is thinking it. It’s exactly like what you’re describing, and gets its power because the writer knows what he’s doing.

  5. #11 by Patsy on December 17, 2012 - 8:02 am

    My characters tend to arrive with problems, which is rather helpful of them.

  6. #13 by Sally - aka Saleena on December 17, 2012 - 3:27 pm

    Thanks for this Roz. I guess this is why so many stories start with some sort of terrible dream, or flashback – or even flash-forward – to a nail-biting event, and then back to the beginning as the second scene, if you see what I mean.

    Your catalyst character sounds intriguing! I’m always interested in the support characters, and wonder what their back story is. Sounds like your character’s back story force itself into the forefront!

  7. #15 by Candy on December 18, 2012 - 1:05 am

    Love this post!
    I’ve been reading all sorts of indie ebooks in a variety of genres and jeopardy is an essential ingredient in storytelling. The lack of any genuine jeopardy undermines so many stories. I can’t tell you how hard it is to read a “safe” mystery. Without an element of fear, the promise of a dire consequence or even the threat of a horrible fate, romances, mysteries, even funny family sagas are flat.

    Foreshadowing, ominous characters, seemingly inexplicable betrayals, etc. keep the characters — and the readers — on edge.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 20, 2012 - 8:37 am

      Thanks, Candy – and that’s it absolutely. You need to keep the reader on edge from the very beginning. And it takes time to thread it in along with all the other things you’re trying to do at the start of the book.

  8. #17 by Deb Atwood on December 18, 2012 - 4:05 pm

    Great post. Love your canned image–priceless and so apropos!

  9. #19 by Anna Lindwasser on December 18, 2012 - 10:25 pm

    What an interesting post! Thank you for this. I agree completely. If your characters are living lives that are completely stable, your reader might not stay interested long enough to stick around for the big reveal or conflict. There should be some foreshadowing, even if it’s only a few small things going wrong. If everything is perfect, it’s not realistic to begin with, so why should we care when that perfection is shattered?

    I’ve never really looked at my own work this way, but I will definitely take this advice into account from now on.

  10. #21 by Chris Osborn (@osborn7chris) on December 22, 2012 - 2:05 pm

    Fabulous post, Roz. It certainly is a delicate balancing act. And yes, characters are a reliable source of instability.

  11. #23 by StephLJ on October 17, 2013 - 1:52 am

    This is great advice. When I read the first draft of my book I realized that I had virtually run from every scene that could have added to the angst or drama. I had characters gear up to argue, then back down. I had people ready to fight for their rights… then make a phone call and leave a voice mail. It was a problem! Your article really inspires me to take another look, and see where I can amp up the conflict in those scenes where I was too shy before! Thanks!

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