There is a scene in my current novel in progress in which the heroine slowly realizes she has been dumped into the middle of the dark ages, a situation that is as foreign to her as it would be for me if I awoke in the middle of Game of Thrones. Not just foreign, but deadly as well. One wrong move and (imagine a finger across your neck right here) she’s toast, and she’s already made several blunders that could land her in a whole lot of hot water.
Ramping up the tension in your story is not easy. After writing approximately nine chapters, I went back and reread what I’d written and realized that while some cute situations happened to my heroine, there was nothing there that challenged her or made her heart race with fear or anxiety. In short, her situation was about as bland as baby food. It’s the old rede of ‘kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings,’ and I wasn’t listening.
The problem is not only that you need tension, it’s how to make that tension believable. I could make her pregnant and running through the jungle with a tribe of long-forgotten savages after her. Certainly tense, but guaranteed to make your reader scoff at the situation. I thought of a thousand situations I could stick her into that would give her a mess to face, conquer and clean up, but none of them satisfied me for one reason or another. A chance remark sent me to the internet to look up a fact, and that one led me to another, and yet another, and suddenly, I had a kernel of an idea.
Which led me to more research, which led to a couple other situations where I could throw roadblocks in my heroine’s path. And a few into my hero’s path as well. Can’t neglect him. I had a hard time leaving all that wealth of information to actually put the ideas into practice, but I tore myself away. The result is that my narrative is richer (I believe) and the tension in my story doubled (I hope!)
I’m not preaching here. Must writers know that research is essential for accurate reporting of a myriad of details that each story contains. But I’ve found that it’s also great for finding ways to add an element of danger, avarice, humor, pathos, or any other emotion or behavior your protag needs to make his or her ride less than smooth.
Oh, and by the way, it was a reference to Lethal Weapon that gave me the idea. I’ll leave you to ponder how that might translate into a fifth century time-travel romance.