How to Attract an Agent: Tension

Updated: Sep 10, 2021


With thousands of authors querying and submitting their work at any given time, competition within the industry is fierce. In my experience, most projects that I looked at in my query box were really, really good. (Seriously! So good!) But with so many manuscripts vying for limited spots on publishing calendars, agents and editors are forced to sign only what’s exceptionally great.

Now as we’ve already discussed, publishing is HIGHLY subjective; "exceptionally great” is filled with nuance. But there are some definitive things that an author can examine in their manuscript in an effort to set themselves up for the best chance of success. One is voice. Another, which we’ll look at here, is tension.

Many writers receive feedback or critiques that mention a lack of tension. But because tension is achieved differently in each story, pinpointing what makes good tension can seem vague. To help bring some clarity to the idea, let’s think through more concrete elements of conflict, stakes, and pacing—all of which can contribute to overall tension.

Stakes

Stakes are often what hooks the reader and keeps them turning the pages, so they’re undoubtably tied to the overall tension of the story. Stakes refer to what a character stands to lose if they don’t overcome the conflict (see below). Good tension builds with increasing stakes, adding layer upon layer of potential loss which thrusts the main character forward into finding ultimate resolution.

If you think the stakes in your story might be causing a tension problem, consider the following fixes:

  • Examine your protagonist’s fears or needs. The stakes (potential loss) of the story should be built on those bones.

  • Outline each revealed stake. Could they be out of order? Meaning, are the stakes too grand in the beginning and too easy at the end?

  • Reveal some stakes in sub-plots and for your antagonist and/or side characters. What does everybody else stand to lose?

  • Think through how literary devices such as foreshadowing, twists, and revelations can be used to up the stakes throughout the story. Sometimes it’s best to hint at increasing stakes rather than tell the reader outright (not original stakes—those need to be clear).

Conflict

Conflict is closely tied to stakes, and therefore just as important to overall tension. Conflict refers to the struggles that a character experiences on the way to achieving their goal. If stakes are what the character stands to lose, conflict is what stands in their way.

Conflict can come from internal or external sources. Your character might struggle against previously held beliefs or against emotional walls they’ve put up. Your character might also struggle against other players, political systems, or natural disasters. The best stories have a pleasing mix of both external and internal conflict!

As an author, you have two jobs when it comes to conflict. First, you must establish why the conflict matters to your character. What keeps them struggling against the obstacles rather than turning to an easier path? (Hint: this is tied to stakes!) Second, you must establish how the conflict relates to the reader. What makes the reader care about these struggles?

If you think conflict might be contributing to your tension problem, these questions might help with a remedy:

  • Is your conflict relatable to a majority of readers, or should you define a deeper, more universal core issue? (For example, if your main character’s conflict revolves around convincing her parents to get a dog, you may need to hint at her yearning for companionship—a conflict even non-dog-lovers can relate to.)

  • Could you add some internal conflict? An ethical issue that comes up in light of the main, external conflict, perhaps?

  • How about increasing conflict through dialogue? Dodging, deflecting, arguing—all of these help to add both external and internal conflict to a scene which helps the overall tension.

  • Do you have too much conflict to be believable in the story’s world? If you add conflict after conflict to the point of unbelievability, readers feel like you’re…trying too hard, maybe? (Her parents died, then her boyfriend cheated, then she broke both legs, then her house exploded, then aliens attacked = too much)

Pacing

Tension is greatly affected by pacing as well. Pacing has to do with the timing of the story and how elements of conflict and stakes are reveled to readers. It’s also tied to the layout of scenes as they fall next to one another. For instance, scenes that bring in backstory are great for characterization, but too many in a row will take the reader out of the main pace of the story.

If you think your pacing might be lagging, working on the following might help with tension:

  • Are your readers reminded of the stakes and conflict at regular intervals?

  • Would your story’s pacing benefit from some type of countdown or ultimatum? A ticking clock increases conflict and helps you as an author set a pace for the story.

  • Is there a good balance in the ordering of scenes? Meaning, after an intense action scene, do you allow your readers to recoup? After some hefty introspection, do you follow up with some quick-witted dialogue?

  • Does the emotional response to conflict continue to build regularly? As things get more dire, does your character respond in turn? (If not, you may need to dial back the initial response so that you can build emotional tension at an appropriate pace along the way.)

  • Focus on the middle, a common place for pacing problems—are there scenes that should be cut to improve pacing?

Thinking About Tension Like an Agent

Okay, so when you’re querying a project, your goal is to move an agent from “I like this” to “I love this!!” Why? Because the agent is going to then try to do the same thing when submitting your work: convince an editor that they love your project enough to add it to their list. Establishing tension is an excellent tool in this like-to-love quest.

In your query letter, answer these three questions to establish tension: What does your character want (motivation)? What gets in their way (conflict)? And what do they stand to lose if they don’t overcome the conflict (stakes)? Don’t give away the ending! Keep the agent intrigued by focusing on—not resolving—that tension in your query.

Bottom line: readers love tension. Which means sales teams love tension, because it helps them sell books to readers. Which means editors are more apt to acquire a project with tension, because it will sell. Which means an agent is more likely to do that like-to-love switch when they can see great tension in a project.

Until next time, may your real life tension be minimal and your story tension be great.

~Melissa





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