THE BLOG
07/09/2013 02:49 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

The Tightrope

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Imagine a circus acrobat, stepping slowly across a tense, suspended tightrope. It takes years of practice to master this remarkable act of balance and bravery, and quite a bit of confidence to put the skill on display in front of thousands of families.

Now imagine if our acrobat is performing this feat only one foot off the ground.

So what? That's still impressive, isn't it? Surely it takes exactly the same skills to walk a tightrope at one foot as at one hundred feet. The balance required is the same. The distance is the same. The acrobat performing each act may be entirely equal in talent, and their motions may be exact mirror images of one another.

But is there any question which one is more exciting?

You see, in the end, it's not about the skill. It's about the danger. The fun isn't in successfully walking from one end of the rope to the other. The fun is the possibility that the acrobat will fall.

The principle at work here is tension, and it's one a lot of writers struggle with. I've worked with a number of exceptionally talented authors, in genres ranging from thriller to middle grade, who stumble on this point. They can write a hell of an action scene, or write prose with incredible grace and whimsy, but when it comes to the stakes, they keep the tightrope within reaching distances of the ground.

Sometimes, they write characters who can't fail. I've worked with two different authors who crafted compelling vigilante characters--brilliant and dangerous people with a passionate cause, people with an uncanny ability to elude any and all law enforcement on their tails. These characters, in fact, were so talented and so elusive that their success was never in question, their freedom never in doubt. The tightrope was low because the characters were not in any real danger.

I've worked with other authors who crafted characters for whom success was far less certain, but who, frankly, didn't have a lot to lose. One such character, a detective, was faced with the terrible potential consequence of not being paid for his efforts. Yeah, we all want to make money, but that's not exactly the same as life or death. The tightrope was low because the character simply didn't have very far to fall.

And I've worked with authors who simply loved their characters too much to make them too unhappy for any period of time. I edited a young adult novel with exactly this problem. The writing was always strong--brilliant, even--but if the characters were especially unnerved or disheartened by the ostensibly unpleasant things that had happened to them, you couldn't really tell. Loved ones disappeared and mysterious men controlled their lives, but on an everyday basis, the characters seemed content, safe, and secure. The tightrope was low because the characters never found their own situation particularly scary.

If you want your novel to be exciting, you need tension. Tension is the lifeblood of a great story. Tension inspires characters into action, or particular inaction. Tension generates plot. And tension, crucially, keeps the reader turning the page.

So what do you do? You raise the tightrope. In one of the thrillers, we had the vigilante get shot and nearly caught by the police. Suddenly, he's not so invulnerable. Suddenly, the stakes are a good deal higher.

In the mystery, we established that the detective needed the money to get his aunt so much-needed surgery. We also established an ongoing physical threat to his own life. Suddenly, the situation is potentially dire whether he gives up or succeeds.

In the young adult book, we established an air of menace about those who controlled the characters' lives. We added escape attempts and a reason escape was necessary. Suddenly, the situation is frightening, because the characters themselves are frightened.

The fundamental issue is not the action itself, but the significance of the action to the character. Suppose the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. All of society has gone up in smoke. Even that, as massive and catastrophic as it is, does not inherently bring tension to your story--not if your main character has an awesome, fully stocked fallout shelter he was planning to spend the rest of his life in anyway. Not if he never left his house to begin with.

Not if he had nothing to lose.

If the tightrope is low to the ground--if tension is marginal--it doesn't mean you're a bad writer. Far from it. As I said at the start, walking a tightrope one foot off the ground takes exactly the same skill as walking it one hundred feet off the ground--or even over Niagara Falls. You may well be a terrific writer.

But people don't watch the acrobat to admire the skill. They watch to feel the possibility that he'll fall. So when you're writing your novel, don't just be skillful.

Be death-defying.