In much of contemporary fiction, the plot of the story revolves around an increasing level of tension. Yes – it also revolves around a character or a set of circumstances; however, it is the tension that makes a reader want to turn the page and see what happens next. In considering plot and conflict, you have to look at what is motivating your story – what moves it forward or where the tension is coming from. The best explanation I’ve ever seen for this is that MICE move stories. Let me explain:
M – stands for Milieu.
A milieu is basically a travelogue to a different time or place from where the reader exists. There is no great lesson to be learned, other than the idea that there may be something different out there than what the reader knows already. A good example of a milieu is Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. True, Swift was a master of sarcastic wit and irony, and there is much in the book that makes fun of Swift’s contemporary culture, but the book itself is about a man who travels to different locations, has strange experiences, and then returns home. The tension is created when Gulliver finds himself at odds with the culture with whom he is visiting. This type of book requires additional crafting to get and hold the reader’s attention, and many of today’s young readers turn their nose up at a book that doesn’t offer them compelling conflict.
I – stands for Idea.
The Idea story starts with a question that involves a unique idea, and ends when the question has been answered. The tension is created as the question brings new challenges to be faced, and does – or doesn’t – answer the question in a manner that the reader expects. A great example of this would be Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which asks what would happen if man encountered his own origins and purpose in his conquering of space. We don’t care so much for the spaceman named Dave Bowman, but we do care about the ever-changing circumstances brought about by the confrontation with the black monolith.
C – stands for Character.
The character-driven story relies on a specific character or set of characters. The reader follows the character around to see what happens to him or her next. The reader observes the character to see if he or she changes, learns a lesson, or falls face down. By showing us another facet of the human experience, the author allows the reader to connect to the character, whether the reader is like that character or different from him or her. The tension is created by the choices and consequences faced by the character. Each choice brings a new result, and provides a new set of circumstances for the character to contend with. As the inimitable Jane Yolen described it, it’s about chasing the character up a tree, throwing a few rocks at him, then seeing how he tries to get down again.
E – stands for Event.
The event represents some impending calamity in the fabric of the universe. A great and terrible force, a cataclysmic event, or some other terrible thing has caused an upset in the current order and threatens to bring an end to the known universe. Typically, a character or group of characters must undergo a quest to save their world from doom. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an extended example of such a story. The characters are typically interesting, even if they tend to fall into several stereotypical categories (the handsome hero and his plucky sidekick; the wizard/wise old woman and the young apprentice, etc.), but the characters tend to be static, or unchanging, throughout the story. These tend to serve as good vs. evil type stories, and the tension is created by evil gaining the upper hand.
In each type of story, the tension must extend from believable circumstances. The conflict doesn’t have to be one of biblical proportions to be believable, it just has to fit the events of the story and the individuals who must face it. The conflict of dealing with a first crush can bring as much tension as the threat of the end of the universe if the writer has given proper attention to the characters and the elements motivating the story. The death of a family member can create as much conflict as the death of a national leader given the same criteria.
The primary conflict of the story does not have to be introduced on page 1 either. Like the teasing on the first date prior to the good-night kiss, tension is created over time, built up to the climactic moment when the issue is resolved and the story ends. Along the way there are peaks and valleys in the conflict, but the tension must build over the course of the story, or you’ll have that “sagging middle” issue.
Building tension throughout the course of a story takes an awareness of where the story is going, and a willingness to add or withhold information for the purpose of escalation. It’s like a good roller coaster ride: you know what’s coming, and you try to anticipate the plunging hills, the slow climbs, the twists and turns of the ride, but in the end, the thrill is the unexpected sensations, the tension of hanging on for the ride.