One of the most important things my mentor pointed out to me in Pitch Wars was my tendency to sabotage my own plot tension in tiny ways.
I would be writing along, maintaining my big story goals and my character arcs and my scene goals and all those lovely things, but then I would needlessly pull tension out of the scene by reminding the reader that life would be okay. Because my main character was quite competent and was good at reading people, she would size up the situation and decide not to be scared.
THIS IS BAD.
You want your characters to be scared. You want them to be confused. You want them to be in pain, because all of these things add to the tension of the story. Even if that moment of tension is something simple, like not knowing if another character will be helpful or stand-offish, it still adds another brick to the story-house you’re building.
In THE MAGICAL CONSTANT OF RICE, my Pitch Wars story, Stana is a strong, well-trained girl, who can kick butt and take names. This makes it even more important to establish and maintain story tension for her. Otherwise, she would become too perfect–a cardboard character who can easily defeat all opponents.
Think about John McClane in DIE HARD.
He is incredibly competent and incredibly driven, but what makes his story so compelling is that the creators of the movie keep ratcheting up the tension on him throughout the whole story. He never gets a break, never has a moment where he can sit in some air duct and reflect on how everything is going to be fine because he has so many skills. Instead, he is constantly running into new problems that increase his story tension. They aren’t all terrorists–sometimes they’re broken glass–but they all make it more difficult for him to attain his goal.
Long ago, I heard someone describe storytelling as the process of stranding a character in a tree, then throwing rocks at them. The story happens as the character works to find a way to overcome the rocks and get back down out of the tree.
By allowing my character to reassure herself, I wasn’t throwing rocks at her. I was throwing feathers. They never quite reached her, so they did no damage, and she had nothing to overcome.
So create big rocks and throw them hard at your character in the tree. Give the reader a reason to fear for your protagonists and root for their success.
Don’t throw feathers.