No matter how many different TV shows I watch, no matter how many complete seasons I’ve seen, I keep learning new things. Maybe it’s merely learning new things in an old way, but the application is so much clearer.
A recent episode of Madam Secretary made the application of a tip from writing mentor Susan May Warren so clear. It is multi-layered in conflict, tension, and the hero/heroine’s walk through a door of no return.
As part of the middle of your novel, the hero or heroine must make decisions that cause them to choose between two competing values. If you have established these values early on in the story, it builds both internal and often external conflict.
Check out this clip from Madam Secretary:
In this clip we see the Secretary of State weighing the value of an individual life vs. many lives, justice vs. freedom, and future risk vs. temporary gains.
If she chooses to save one evil man, she can force his hand to agree with the U.S. terms, keep a deadly virus from spreading, and release several imprisoned women. If she doesn’t, she can save her friend, exact justice on an evil man, and avoid further terror risks.
There are only 4 doses of this vaccine in the world. Once gone, it cannot be changed. Thus she enters through the door of no return after the decision is made.
We see the external conflict that can result from her staff being angry, an evil man going free, and justice being denied on the world stage. The internal conflict is created because the Secretary of State values loyalty, friendship, justice, and freedom.
Use This Principle To Create Tension In A Novel In These Three Steps:
- Establish values important to your hero/heroine early in your novel.
- Pit these values against one another in a decision they must make.
- Make the decision result in a door of no return.
- Intensify the consequences by making the fall out be key to those close to the hero/heroine.
What example like this have you seen in a movie or novel?