Episodic vs Escalating Conflict: Planning your conflict sequence

The audience whether readers or viewers have expectations about how tension builds.  They are not particularly interested in how much research you have done or how knowledgeable you are about a subject.  They want the story to work.

If you’ve done your background research well you will find that probably 80% of what you know will not appear in your story.  If you cram in too many details the story slows and the reader gets lost.

Right now I am reading an historical novel billed as a thriller.  I’m finding that the story is more like a travelogue of 14th Century Rome than a thriller.  The protagonist goes here and meets colorful people, then goes there and meets more colorful individuals but even with battle scenes and obscure rituals the story lags because the tension does not build.

You can keep this from happening in your story if you do a little planning beforehand.  Those 3×5” cards are very handy at this point.  Make a list of bad things that can happen to your protagonist.  Then order them in levels of escalating badness.  Decide which is the incident that plunges the protagonist into the everything-seems-hopeless event at the middle.  Then, save the really nasty stuff until the end of the story.

You will find that the time you spend going through this process will help your story create tension from beginning to end and keep readers enthralled.  And you will have a better story.

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