I used to play a lot of poker when I was younger. Smoked my first cigar in my buddy Brad’s garage during the final round of a $20 game of Texas hold ‘em. We usually bought our seats at the table for 10 bucks, but on this night, the buy-in was 20 and I was lucky enough to be one of the last three players left.
I was sitting on a pair of jacks. There was already a jack and two 4’s on the board, so with a full house—or, as a betting man might say, “jacks full of 4’s”—I felt confident enough to make the call. Winning the hand meant a minimum payout of $100—which is quite a lottery for a high school kid. Losing meant I’d go home empty handed.
With a crack of reluctance in my voice, I pushed every chip I had left into the center of the table and made my declaration.
“I’m all in.”
If there’s any advice I can offer you in writing tension into your stories, and in getting your DeepKids to write tension into theirs, it’s this:
Raise the stakes.
Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying here, but good stories are about characters who want something and must overcome conflict to get it. By raising the stakes, we make our character’s chances of getting that something seem less likely.
This can be done several ways:
- Sentence structure
- Line breaks
- Ticking clocks
- Beating hearts
- Different colored wires attached to a bomb
- Cars on the edges of cliffs
- Raptors in kitchens chasing kids (à la Jurassic Park)
Which brings me to my next point:
A good conversation starter to get your DeepKids thinking about tension is movies. One of my favorites is the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter—though you might choose a more lighthearted example. Showing a tense movie clip paired with a copy of the script or book works well.
What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene? What’s your favorite literary device to use when adding tension? Do you have any good “raised stakes” stories?
(For those of you wondering, I lost the poker game. Brad hit running aces and beat me aces full.)