Let’s Talk Story, Part 1

A novelist must tell a good story, pure and simple. Yes, lyrical writing, beautiful descriptions, vibrant characters all add to the reading experience, but without a good story, it’s unlikely readers will keep reading.

So what components must a good story contain?

Tension. Donald Maass, uber-agent and author of a number of writing books, says there needs to be tension on every page. Tension and conflict, by the way, are not the same thing. Think of tension as friction or stress.

A pastor of a small rural church understands that his father, pastor of a suburban mega-church, thinks his son is wasting his time and talents. Every email, every phone call from the father with that hint or tone of disapproval creates tension in the son.

The spring day is unusually warm, the beach, inviting. City-dwellers flock to the water, ignoring the red flag flying from the vacant lifeguard stand. A mom settles in with her book as her six year old digs in the sand at the edge of the water. Every time the child dips a bucket into the ocean or a wave splashes her legs, tension builds.

A successful businessman has five more years before he can retire, but a letter arrives from the government offering him a position overseas that will uproot his life—and give him adventure he’s only dreamed about. He presents the opportunity to his wife, and the tension expands.

The point is, an author creates tension by putting two characters with different worldviews in an unbreakable relationship or by foreshadowing impending disaster or by pulling a character in two because of his own incompatible values.

The best stories don’t have comfortable, content characters. They have characters that readers worry about, some they even want to pray for.

How’s the level of tension in your story?

Of course, tension alone does not a story make. Other components of good stories next time.


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