I’ve been reading a lot of books on story craft lately, each of which presents basically the same information but in different ways, such that one topic might befuddle me, whereas another will drive the same concept home.
In one of these books (and I apologize, I cannot recall at the moment precisely which), the thing that stood out most to me was the concept of adding conflict.
The author put it basically like this: You know how when you’re having a nightmare, and you’re running away, but you keep hitting obstacles, and the bad guy is always right behind you, and you can never seem to get more than a step ahead? That’s building conflict in your stories.
That really struck home for me because that right there is my every nightmare. I rarely dream, but when I do, it’s usually some god-awful terror of being chased or hunted. It’s always dark and hard to see; there’s always some dangerous figure behind me (who is either my birth mother or some faceless person, oddly enough); and I find myself running for my life.
The pavement turns to quicksand, so I can’t get my footing. The doors get stuck and won’t open until the very last moment as I’m trying to get away. The tight spaces get tighter until I can barely breathe and can hardly move. I run and I run and I run, but the dark figure is always right behind me.
Sometimes I have this nightmare of being in some sort of underground labyrinth of tunnels that are barely large enough for me to fit through, and I’m climbing up or sliding down or crawling through, desperate for an open space so I can breathe, desperate to run, and the figure is always there, chasing me.
Sometimes I’m out in the open, but it’s so dark I can barely see what’s ahead of me, and I’m running as fast as I can possibly go, but the ground is slick beneath my feet, or the laws of physics suspend, making concrete shift like sand or motion change such that my normal stride only takes me half as far.
Then I’m diving into some building with obstacles all around, and I’m trying to crawl through without making any noise, without knocking anything over, and trying to keep an eye out for the man with the gun, trying to get to the door before he does.
Running, running, running, always running, while I encounter shifting ground, closed doors, tight spaces, high fences, wild animals — one thing after another, building up the tension until I think my heart might burst and I wake up panting and shaking and practically in tears.
Building conflict. Ramping up tension. Adding stakes. All to answer the question: How can I make this scene worse for this character?
Phew! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a soothing cup of tea.
Because, of course, after the tension must come the release, but whether the release is victory or defeat — ah, that remains to be seen…