Adding Tension

I am not really sure if this is a first draft problem or not. When I was twelve years old, I could just start talking and the story would come out of my mouth non-stop. They were comic book style adventures. The characters were never deeper than Superman or Luke Skywalker. The stories were pretty cookie cutter stuff. My friends and family loved them. My hands couldn’t catch up to write it down. So I tried to come up with more complex, character driven, emotionally draining stories. Some of the stories were obscene. My family lost interest. Fewer and fewer friends supported my writing. Forty years later, I could not go back to my cartoonish adventure stories if I wanted to. My sister still thinks they were my best stories.

It was so easy to add tension to those stories. Tension is nothing more than an on-going cliff hanger. If your story stops at that point until the next installment, it is a cliff hanger. If your story does not pause, it is tension. That is all there is to it.

Juliet is so madly in love with Romeo that she cannot bear the idea of marrying Paris, a perfectly suitable groom. In fact she is so distraught she is going to kill herself. The friar is at his wits end about what to do, but if he does not produce a plan Juliet will stab herself.
See you next week, same time, same channel.
No. The friar has a plan. A crazy plan, but it just might work. Juliet must swallow a poison that will make her mimic death for twenty four hours. The wedding will be cancelled and she will elope with Romeo who will receive a secret letter informing him of the scheme. Unfortunately, the letter misses Romeo and instead he gets the message that the love of his life is dead.
To be continued.
Nope. He decides to buy an illegal potion and kill himself next to dead Juliet. Minutes before she is due to wake up, Romeo stands beside her, contemplating her death and taking his time before swallowing the poison.
Wait for the sequel. Coming Soon.
Nah, it’s here already. He swallows the poison. She wakes up soon after. She finds Romeo dead. How is she going to respond?
Stay tuned for scenes from our next episode.

Tension is just a series of cliff hangers in a story that does not stop. Just adding tension to a story is not really very difficult. Continuous tension in a coherent story is difficult. Why do we care about Romeo and Juliet? Two families are at war, but there are class differences within each clan, calculated politics, unhappy marriages, scores to settle, loyalties and betrayals. It is a car racing down a winding road at the edge of a cliff with more passengers than it should hold, every one of them wrestling for the steering wheel punching each other in the struggle, and when we see the dark souls of each character trying to gain dominance over the control of the car, we understand the purity of the young couple’s love; and that is when we get caught up in the series of cliff hangers that builds up the tension at the end of the play.

The tension is easy. It is the buildup that is difficult. Why should anybody care that Romeo and Juliet are doomed? That is the question. In Shakespeare, the buildup is attained by killing somebody in every act, basically. Each sacrifice raises the stakes. It gets easier in a cartoon story where no one character is any deeper than Superman and Lex Luthor. A building full of people can die in every battle scene. It gets difficult when the people in your story are struggling with internal problems that you need your readers to care about. What will raise the stakes in your story?

And since we are asking, do we need to solve this problem in the first draft?

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