Writers know there are elements of a good story. Good setting, good character development, rising action, evoking empathy and worry for characters, a satisfying ending, and the all-important tension and conflict. Tension and conflict has never been something I’ve struggled to achieve. It runs rampant and wreaks havoc in my stories, it drives my characters to near madness, and it keeps my readers on the edges of their seats. Whenever I hear a speaker at a writing conference or class talk about the importance of tension, I’m reminded of something from my childhood. Paper dolls.
A creative type from the get-go, I used to make my own paper dolls. I had entire families of cut out dolls and was always on the hunt for a good piece of sturdy paper to make a paper doll out of. Once my characters were in order, they needed clothes, which I drew, complete with tabs, and laboriously cut out with my little round-tipped scissors. Yes, I’ve been creating characters since I can remember, in one way or another. But the most telling memory that shines a light on how from my early years, I knew how to create a story, is that one paper doll in particular was of constant use in my played-out scenes.
The Blue Lady.
She was drawn on a sturdy piece of a dark blue file folder. Her hair was wild, and her mouth maintained a permanent frown. Her eyes were fierce and crazed. She wore too much make up and her voice was loud and screechy. Very bossy. Very mean. Demanding. Judgmental. Angry. She didn’t have a name. She simply was, The Blue Lady.
I used The Blue Lady to bring tension and conflict into the scenes I acted out with the other paper dolls. The boy and girl dolls would be playing nicely, and along would come The Blue Lady. Party over! Two lady dolls would be shopping, and then they’d run into The Blue Lady. Day ruined. The dark blue broad rarely allowed a moment’s peace for the other cut-out dolls.
If you’re a psychiatrist, you may have some opinions about this. But if you’re an actor or actress, you know dramatic scenes are the juiciest to play. Think about the stories you’ve loved. Even the sweetest romance has conflict and tension. It really isn’t a story if something isn’t overcome. Even children’s stories have problem’s to solve. Real people must solve real problems. It’s called life. Writers are keen life-observers. They’re people watchers. Conversation eavesdroppers, situation-supposers, dream-analyzers, what-if wonderers.
I think all children when they play pretend, know this. It’s like when you hear two little boys play “Who would win?” One boy says, “Who would win in a fight, a lion or a bear?” Or, “Who would win in a fight, an elephant or a rhinoceros?” And ultimately, it may come down to the most classic of all little boy arguments, “My dad is stronger than your dad!” See? Conflict and tension. It’s the heart of all stories. It’s part of every day our lives. The room is dirty… that’s tension… I clean it and in so doing, have overcome the obstacle. I’ve won the battle. A school child doing difficult homework or having an argument on the playground is dealing with or overcoming conflict and tension… every single day, these things happen. It may be as simple as solving the problem of what’s for dinner, or as complicated as deciding to leave your job to find another or dealing with a difficult neighbor. Life is rife with tension and conflict of varying degrees.
So, welcome to my writing world. It’s just like every other writer’s worlds. Filled with problems and solutions, characters and settings, beginnings and ending. And forever and ever, it shall be, for all writers throughout time and history. It’s just like everyone else’s world… just written down by someone who’s been paying close attention.