Writing Tip – Turning Up the Heat – Part One

WritingHintsPhotoAs stories move through their middle stages, many have a tendency to sag, as if the author didn’t know how to continue sparking the journey toward the final goal. After an exciting beginning with hot adventure, the story has grown cold.

Here are some ways to turn up the heat. We will look at the first two this week and the second two next week.

  1. Continue Adding Pre-conflict Pauses
  2. Allow Success
  3. Make Bigger Obstacles
  4. Force Greater Sacrifices

1. One reason the middle portions of a story can feel cold is that readers might lose track of what’s at stake. Before each conflict, add a pause to remind readers of the goal, the imminent danger, and what might be lost if the character fails. This will raise the heat and build intensity.

Here is such a pause in Reapers:

When we arrived within the pedestals’ triangle, I looked past the squirming figure in the chair and scanned the yard. Twilight had descended, making it difficult to see the prisoners’ living quarters, especially with the searchlights nearly blinding us to everything beyond the makeshift arena.

By now, Sing was probably inside the quarters, and with the spotlights already frozen on the center of the yard, she could make her escape move at any time. Since the guards had been doubled, she would have to overpower two guards twice—once at the door to the quarters and again at the Hilton’s rear exit when they opened the door in response to her knock. With each passing moment, every step in our plan seemed more unlikely to work.

Still, if anyone could do it, Sing could. I had to keep my hopes alive, though trying to free Cairo really complicated matters. Our chances of escape were as thin as the smoke in our capsules.

2. If your protagonist always fails, then your reader will become frustrated, so allow some success. Yet, don’t allow success to remove the tension. Success in one goal should lead to a revelation of an even greater goal with higher stakes.

Here is an example from Reapers:

I gave Sing a quick summary of what happened while she was breaking the family out of the camp, including our staged battle to the death and Alex’s constant enticement to take the energy from the depot tube, though I left out the part about Kwame … for the time being.

When I finished, I turned toward Sing. “So, where are the Fitzpatricks?”

“They’re safe with my people,” Sing said as she leaned her head against my shoulder. “The hardest part was relocking the door after I got them out. At least the prisoners I left behind were smart enough not to bang on it, but some of the women were crying. It broke my heart.”

“I can imagine.”

“And I have bad news. I heard Cairo’s a prisoner in the camp now. I didn’t see him or else I would’ve asked him to help me. He’s in danger because Alex plans to terminate fifty prisoners each day until they’re all dead and reaped.”

“Fifty!” An image of Cairo playing his cello flashed to mind, then dozens of faces in the camp’s living quarters. We had to get them all out, and we needed lots of help.

Phoenix and company succeeded in rescuing the family, but Alex, the antagonist, retaliates and threatens many more lives. Success was short-lived, and now Phoenix has a greater goal to achieve.

The middle sag is thereby eliminated. Goals increase. Conflict escalates. Tension mounts. And the reader feels the heat all the way.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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3 replies

  1. What do you do when those escalating conflicts start sounding too similar? Off the top of my head, I’m not sure which of my stories has this problem, but I feel like that question has crossed my mind before. Anyway, when each successive conflict feels too much like the previous ones, what do you do to fix it?

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