The instinct for manipulating reader tension is one of the most fundamental skills for any writer to master. Once your story has established the protagonist’s motivation and goals, the character should start working towards those objectives. However, instant success is not only cheating, it’s boring. For your character to have an emotionally satisfying journey, they need to try and fail several times before getting it right.
Pierce Brown is one of my favorite debut authors of the past five years precisely because of his mastery of the try-fail cycle. While others praise his world building and poetic prose, both of which are top shelf, I rather admire his plotting and characters. Brown seems constitutionally incapable of cutting Darrow, his protagonist, a break.
The key to Brown’s success with try-fail cycles was that they felt organic. Darrow didn’t fail as often as he did because it was what the story needed. He failed because the other characters acted with agency. Each time Darrow makes progress towards one of his goals, one of the other characters springs an attack, an ambush, or a trap that bloodies him and knocks him flat into the mud. In a few instances, literally. I was honestly surprised by how many times I thought “well, at least this couldn’t get any worse for him,” and then was proven wrong. Very wrong.
It’s important to note that each time Darrow fails, the odds are stacked higher and higher against him. That’s key. Try-fail cycles are meant to be more than a setback. They need to make it harder for your protagonist to achieve his or her goals. That way, when they do end up succeeding, the win is so much more satisfying.
I’ve noticed that many authors write their story with only two major characters having any significant, independent agency: the protagonist and the antagonist. I suspect this isn’t a conscious choice, but rather it is simply easier to keep track of from a plotting perspective. Brown, on the other hand, ensured that most of his secondary characters and a few of his minor characters also act with agency. In so doing, he perfectly justifies a complex plot.
I’ve found that using a series of try-fail cycles is one of the simplest and most effective ways to maintain your readers’ sense of dramatic tension. It doesn’t matter how good you are at character, plot, world building, or prose if you are unable to engage the reader on an emotional level and use that connection to draw them through the story. Reader empathy with the protagonist and other characters is only the first step however. Once you’ve set that hook, you must know how to drag the reader through the novel by putting those beloved characters, and their deepest desires, in jeopardy. Ultimately, reader tension is what makes the difference between a bland book and an emotionally satisfying novel.Tags: Sequence 08: Stories I Love