Let’s talk about interpersonal tension! Tension drives a plot, but it’s also a huge part of what makes relationships between characters zing, and that’s what I’m thinking about today.
At its most basic level, tension happens when characters want something they’re not getting. In a lot of fiction, they want something from somebody else: often a romantic relationship and/or sex. Relationships between characters have great chemistry when there’s not just a constant pull between the characters, but a push apart as well, and an extra spark based on personality.
In order for tension to exist, characters must want something, and there must be a barrier to them acquiring it. This is why forbidden love is so popular. It’s also pretty popular to make the barrier apparently insurmountable, as a shortcut to making the love more dramatic:
I want to love you but
- I also want to eat you
- Our families want to kill each other
- We can never touch
- Loving you is damnation
- Being with you would destroy you
- Loving you would cost me everything else
- It is a punishable crime
That can make for a fun story, but the larger the barrier, the more work the author has to do in order to produce a satisfying conclusion. That can end up being really challenging! Sometimes authors opt for a tragic ending, where barriers are actually insurmountable. Or sometimes they sidestep the barriers, and if everybody enjoys the journey, who cares?
It’s also possible to produce great interpersonal tension without relying on mountainous barriers:
I want to love you but
- We have different social ranks
- I’m afraid of myself
- You want somebody else
- I don’t understand you
- I don’t deserve you
- I love somebody else (possibly platonically) who can’t share me
- I’m not who you think I am
These are barriers that are easier to resolve when resolution time comes, since they usually (but not always) arise from internal rather than external sources. However, without solid characterization and a plot, they may not be enough to catch and tickle the fancy of readers. They also require more work in maintaining the tension: the forces acting on the characters must be carefully balanced so that one set of forces doesn’t overwhelm the other and destroy the tension too soon.
With insurmountable external barriers, the very power of the barrier acts as an amplifier to the yearning. This is another awesome shortcut! It allows a relationship to intensify as they choose whether to try surmounting the barrier– and a love worth climbing an impossible wall for? That’s some serious romance! The author can dedicate the characters fully toward their yearning to be together (or even only one of the characters, if the other one is wrangling different obstacles). This simplifies character development, to say the least.
With internal barriers, the tension is usually amplified via uncharacteristic behaviors. This, of course, requires an established personality for the character to deviate from. A character may be quiet when they are normally loud, or violent when they are normally peaceful. They may be tender instead of brusque, kind instead of cruel, or vulnerable instead of dominating, and so on.* Done gracefully, these displays can be electrifying for the reader, especially when both parties notice the deviation: Will this be the moment when the barrier is overcome? No? And so the tension is carried on, partially by the reader’s own yearnings toward resolution.
Most romantic stories longer than a short story have multiple sources of tension. Maybe some are external, and some are internal. Maybe some are the dramatic results of worldbuilding and some the subtle twists of character building. But maintaining strong tension of any sort requires something else: a demonstration of the barrier made manifest. The barrier must actually have some effect on the story. If somebody believes they are not worthy of their desired partner, that should actually stop them from being with their partner. There should be damnation and devouring and singed fingers and sacrifices. There should be snobbery and self-hatred and deception and discovery. There should be interruptions and interpretations. There should be setbacks, on each side. And they should want each other despite them.
And that’s how you get tension, I think. I’m interested in other ideas, too! I know I haven’t yet really touched on ways to raise tension in actual sex scenes, for example. Perhaps in another post…
*I have to point out that ‘tension’ does not alone equal ‘strong love story’ but that’s really for another post.