Corbett is clear that a work of fiction needs tension to rise until the climax, and that “tension” is not necessarily action. Again, it’s not the dump truck. Stories and novels that have characters reacting to one random event after another have a scattered feel rather than a unifying one, and usually they just don’t grab the reader. The exception is the picaresque novel, which is a sub-genre itself. The picaresque is a collection of episodes as the main character drifts from one event to another. Usually, though, we want that rising tension, the feeling of the stakes getting higher and higher for our Main Character, before we reach the climax and denouement.
We talk about raising stakes, but they don’t have to be global stakes for a book to hold our interest or be suspenseful. A successful presentation at work, a dinner party coming off, a first date, can be major stakes if we know what is driving the character who wants those things.
Rising tension doesn’t only occur across the work as a whole, Corbett says. Each scene should follow the same pattern of rising tension; the MC needs something, there is an obstacle, and the outcome raises the stakes for the MC in some way, even if the MC succeeds in meeting the need.
Corbett credited Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and Book of Mormon fame with this handy test for how well you are matching the graph of rising tension. (I’ve seen it other places as well.) He mentioned using a ‘beat board,” a cartoonists’ tool a little like a storyboard, but the mechanism isn’t important. List out each scene (one or two sentences) of your story. Then decide which of these three words best fits between the ending of each scene and leads into the next one:
“So,” means that action is flowing organically out of the previous scene. “But” implies another obstacle, an obstacle created in the previous scene. Since we have an MC who is dealing with a flaw, lack or wound, probably the obstacle is created by the MC’s desire not to face something she has to face. Or the obstacle can be external; the MC’s rival has the information the MC needs.
“Then” tells you that there is no rising tension. The story is becoming episodic; the following scene is merely a thing that happens with no connection to the previous one.
In Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Spade and Archer think Miss Wonderly has money, so they accept her case. Archer offers to protect her, but he ends up dead in an alley, so Spade begins to investigate. (In fact, speaking of MCs, Spade has to investigate, even though he didn’t like Archer and didn’t trust him. It’s part of his code. Spade is an anti-hero; he is no knight in shining armor and the book makes it clear he’s skated pretty close to the edge of the law more than once, but he does have rules and “you avenge your partner” is one of them.)
I cheated and added the word “meanwhile” to the mix, because some of us write in multiple points of view, and “meanwhile” represents what’s happening in other parts of the story. I think I need to be careful that “meanwhile” doesn’t become a stand-in for “then.”
(A science fiction novel called The Dark Between the Stars gives an example. The book has about twenty-seven viewpoint characters. For the first two-thirds, every connecting word would be “meanwhile.” Tension? Non-existent.)
I would like to hear Corbett fine-tune this model a bit; I think scenes can exist solely to provide information (although I think they can be short) and I’d like a discussion of passages versus scenes.
Still, it’s a good technique. Employing it helps spot the places where the tension flattens, and opens up opportunities to gain greater depth with your characters.
(Once again, the pictures have nothing to do with the column. I just like them.)