Starting off Right… with a Stumble

A guest post by Nicole Lavigne.

Everyone knows a good story needs tension. We ask ourselves: what’s the problem, what’s the major conflict for the story? We’re not too likely to forget about that, and first readers will probably pick up on it if the main character never faces any trials, but that’s not the only tension we need to think about. There needs to be tension throughout the story, building slowly, sometimes in fits and starts too. It keeps a reader turning the pages. But perhaps one place where we might forget about tension, or fail to apply it, is in the opening. It needs tension too. Not big, THE END IS NIGH tension from the very first paragraph, but the first ripples stirring the water, the first creeping shadow while the sun still shines, making it clear that trouble lies ahead. I’m a slush reader for an online magazine, and this is one of my most common comments on stories: too slow in building tension.

Easier said than done, right? So of course, one of the pieces of feedback I got on my story Soil of Truth from my beta reader it was the lack of tension in the opening. Everyone got along too well. The main character, Osaeba, was the perfect apprentice and her mentor knew and appreciated it. One big happy family and absolutely no tension until the main problem was introduced, several hundred words later. Not good. The main problem of the story and its progression in the story was fine. But how to add tension in the opening when I am still introducing the characters and the world, before I can even get to the big problem? So I adjusted the opening. Osaeba was still a good apprentice, attentive and takes initiative, but I made her mentor more critical of her. It was a small change, and didn’t alter the plot, but it brought in some tension between the two characters. Now Osaeba is constantly trying to prove herself. The added bonus? That tension between them continued to build through the story and increased the tension in later scenes. Now it made even more sense when Osaeba’s mentor questions her concerns later on in the story.

Think about your own relationships. We rarely get along perfectly with everyone in our lives. Even people we like, and love, can have traits that get on our nerves or different opinions on important issues (religion or politics, anyone?). Misunderstandings happen all too easily. It’s not enough to end a relationship – a miscommunication or misunderstanding may be cleared easily enough with a conversation, once we have time to have it, or minor irritating traits are brushed aside – but they cause moments of tension. Fiction should show this as well.

The flip-side to this problem is starting a story in media rez, in the middle of the action. There’s lots going on, but if I don’t know enough about the character, their dangerous predicament won’t have me on the edge of my seat fearing for them. Tension works best when we care about the character and how events will affect them. We need to be invested in their hopes in dreams for the action to really mater. Starting in media rez can certainly work, but I find it works best if you give a sense of what’s at stake for the character: are they the innocent victim of a crazed murderer or fighting against the odds to save a loved one?

About Nicole Lavigne:
ZNicole Lavigne has a BA in English and Theatre from the University of Ottawa. She still lives in Ottawa but considers all of Canada her home after bouncing across the country as a military brat during her childhood. She is a professional storyteller, writer, Editorial Assistant for Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine, and daylights as an administrative assistant for the government. Her story, Soil of Truth, will be appearing in Second Contacts by Bundoran Press in the fall of 2015.

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