Sunday, February 06, 2011

Lessons from Star Wars: Ratcheting up the Tension

I love Star Wars, and by that I mean the original three and not the prequels-which-must-not-be-named. There's a lot you can learn from them. While film and writing are two different animals, they share a lot of similarities and as writers, we can learn from them. Star Wars is the ultimate in the heroic journey that you can learn all about from Joseph Campbell. But I'm not going to talk about that. Today I'm talking about tension.

Somewhere along the line, writers have to realize that writing shouldn't be realistic. Here's what I mean: A bad day for me is getting a flat tire or losing my wallet or maybe having my refrigerator go out. No one wants to read a book where these events are the climaxes. A writer's job is to make a bad day into a horrible or terrifying or tragic day.

In Star Wars, Luke and Han have gotten pulled onto the deathstar, rescued Leia and escaped in the garbage shoot. They're having a bad but exciting day. Lucas could stop there, but he doesn't. Why? Because he knows to keep his audience hopelessly hooked, he needs to ratchet up the tension. They're trapped in the deathstar's garbage dump and Luke is attacked by a tentacled monster. Oh no! (Please don't ask why a tentacled monster is on a new space station). He almost escapes and gets pulled back under. Han and Leia are ready to give up when he escapes. Yay! Now they can go back to escaping, right? Nope. The dump is a compactor and the walls start to close in to mash them up! But wait! Luke can call the droids for help, but the droids are hiding and can't hear him....That's a bad day!

Even if you are writing about ordinary people in Ohio, events needs to e extraordinary and you have to ratchet up the tension for your reader. Maybe a tire blows out while a young man is frantically driving his wife whose in child labor to the hospital. Pretty bad, but make it worse. There's a horrible storm and he can barely see to flag down other cars for help. Things are getting pretty tense. What if another car can't see him and comes skidding toward him? That's how you turn a flat tire into a noteworthy, tense moment in a novel.

Happy writing!

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