One of the easiest mistakes to make as a writer is to write the same thing over and over again. What happens is that we hit on a great idea to start a story (something spooky or funny or weird or sad), and then, when the story hits a lull, we double down on that idea to keep the story going (more spookiness, humor, weirdness, or sorrow). It’s the literary equivalent of saying, “More cowbell.” A better strategy is often to switch up what your story is doing, to step away from your great idea, and that stepping away (or switching gears, depending on your metaphor of choice) can actually increase the story’s tension.
A great example of how switching gears can heighten tension can be found in Katherine Fawcett’s story, “Dire Consequences.” It’s included in her story collection The Little Washer of Sorrows and was first published in Pique, where you can read it now (it’s the third of three stories).
How the Story Works
The story begins with a great idea: a girl doesn’t want to eat her broccoli, and her mother says, “No one’s ever died from eating broccoli.” So the girl eats it. Here is what happens next (it’s the story’s great idea):
“See?” said the mother. “I told you. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”
The girl didn’t answer. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, went quietly to the couch, curled up under the afghan, and died.
Awesome, right? At that point, the story comes to a natural pause. The girl is dead. Now what? It’d be tempting, as the writer, to up the ante and find ways to immediately keep the weird cause of death going. But, instead, Fawcett does something different:
From that day on, the boy knew he could get anything he wanted. “If I have to do my homework, I’ll die,” he’d tell his mother, and she’d write a note to his teacher. “I’ll die if I can’t have an ice cream cone,” he’d say and she’d get him a large tiger-tiger in a waffle cone. “I will die right now if I can’t ride in that fire truck,” he’d say and she would have a chat with the fire chief and next thing you know the boy would be sitting in the passenger seat, looking out from under a red plastic fireman’s hat, grinning and waving at all his envious friends.
The story has switched gears, from cause of death to consequences of death. Before long, the story switches gears again:
But like mourning and passion, the novelty of the boy’s threats eventually wore off, and the mother could not bear how spoiled he’d become.
“Hey Mum! Mum! I’ll die unless I can have my birthday party in Disneyland,” he said one day. “With all the kids in my class. Plus a few from soccer.”
Enough was enough.
“Quit using that ‘I will die’ stuff with me,” she said. “You will not die. You’re just manipulating me.”
Neither one of them knew if this was true or not, but deep down the boy was scared that she would test it, so he gradually returned to his obedient ways, and she returned to not being such a pushover.
The story has switched gears again by moving from consequences of death to a kind of acceptance of those consequences.
The story keeps changing gears in this way until the very end. When you read to that ending, you’ll see that the story delivers the sort of payout promised by the great idea at the beginning. And you’ll also see that the story moves in a pretty direct line toward that ending—but, when reading the story, that line doesn’t feel direct. For such a short story, it has many parts and movements, each one ratcheting up the tension and emotional stakes by switching gears.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s increase tension by switching gears, using “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett as a model:
- Find the first pause of your story. When we’re writing, we often feel these moments as they arrive. They have a conclusive quality; we write a sentence and automatically add a space break. These are often moments where we hit writer’s block because they mean starting a new section or part of the story, and any new start means, to some extent, inventing something new rather than extending something that you’ve already created. Fawcett handles her first pause with this phrase: From that day on. It has a natural movement toward consequences or effects: the aftershocks of the big quake that starts the story. So, try starting a new section (after the pause and the space break) with this phrase. If something big happened just before the pause, how can you move forward in time and reveal the fallout from that big happening?
- Amplify the consequences. E. M. Forster famously wrote that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story while “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The difference between the two is a sense of consequence. Imagine if he filled in that second line: “The king died and then the queen wouldn’t leave her room and she wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t drink and wouldn’t get up to use the chamber pot and wouldn’t clean herself up or put on new clothes or swat the flies, which were considerable by the time she died of grief.” The consequences get stacked on top of one another until they become unsustainable. This is exactly what Fawcett does with the son, who demands to have things so that he won’t die. So, try repeating the basic consequence that you’ve invented. How can you break it down into specific actions that can be repeated?
- Change the energy level. What happens when the consequences become unsustainable? Once you’ve created an unsustainable situation, you’re going to hit another natural pause: the situation will resolve itself. Then what? Fawcett switches gears again by changing the energy level of the story from frantic to calm. The kid is freaking out, asking for stuff, and the his mom calls his bluff and they settle into a more sustainable routine, which will, of course, get broken (which will be the next opportunity to change gears). So, how can you dramatically increase or decrease the energy level of your story?
Good luck and have fun.