Recently, I received a request to help judge a contest for an RWA Chapter. After whoring my way around the contest circuit all winter, I figured it was time to give back, so I signed up to judge three manuscripts.
They were all pretty good. It was clear none of the three authors were newbies to the writing scene. They all had strong writing and engaging characters. One problem I noticed across all three manuscripts, though, was the lack of clearly-defined goals for the protagonists. In each case the heroine had plenty of trouble--enough bad things were happening to make her life interesting. What she didn't have was a goal.
David Mamet, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and executive producer of the CBS Drama The Unit, wrote the following in a memo to the writing team for The Unit:
Question: What is drama? Drama...is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.
Without a goal, it's impossible to make your story escalate. You can intensify the trouble and make things more irritating for your protagonist, even more dangerous, but if she doesn't have a goal, there's no yardstick against which to measure her progress--or her setbacks.
The most interesting segments of the Twilight novels are when Bella has something to do other than moon over Edward. When she heads off to Italy to save him from the Volturi, the story really picks up. And because she has a deadline, every obstacle along the way is invested with tension.
Now that I understand this concept, I would never undertake to write a novel where my protagonist didn't have have a clear, time-bound goal. Moreover, the goal needs to be something she needs--not just wants, but needs.
I'm working on plotting out a new novel where the protagonist, an artist, must complete a mural in 30 days or she won't get paid. She currently earns a subsistence living drawing caricatures for tourists in Sedona, AZ, but it's the off-season, and if she doesn't complete this mural, she'll be out on the street. She has a history of not finishing big projects, a deep-rooted character flaw she'll have to overcome--especially since her antagonist is equally determined to keep her from finishing.
What about you? What do you do to create tension in your stories?