As you write your book the tension in the novel should increase from chapter to chapter. Early on it should be clearly stated what the main protagonist has to gain or lose – these are the stakes. While the protagonist strives towards his/her goal the author has to throw obstacles in their path to create drama.
DESIRE + OBSTACLE = TENSION
The roadblocks should be reasonable and make sense for your genre. If you are writing in fantasy it can be wicked creatures, spells and of course the big bad. In romance while there can be outer hindrances, the main ones to be overcome are internal ones. Examples include fear of commitment, low self-esteem, jealousy, negative outlook and so on. The paranormal romance genre should include a mix of both.
Obstacles need to be plausible and make sense for your story. They also need to be resolved before the end of your novel. Even if you write a series, each book needs to have a main threat or issue that arises and is untangled at the end of the story.
While too gargantuan obstacles can be problematic, more often than not we see books that have obstacles that are too minuscule or simplistic. An author must choose wisely what roadblocks to put into the hero’s path. But even more importantly the writer must resolve the obstacles in a manner that does not deflate the tension of the plot.
I would like to use the paranormal romance Wickedly Dangerous (A Baba Yaga novel) by Deborah Blake as an example here on how a too quick obstacle resolution diminishes the momentum. While there are a lot of elements that make the book an enjoyable read, it could’ve been even better if it took the main character longer than a few pages to overcome the hurdles.
For those of you who are still planning to read the novel please be aware that spoiler alerts are below.
The first case of too quick obstacle overcoming is when Baba Yaga creates herbal remedies that instead of improving the condition of her sick patients, worsen it. The build-up to Baba Yaga finding out that there are complaints about her salves, is lovely written. She goes into town, hears rumors, a few indignant people approach her and then she actually goes to a victim’s house and convinces her to have a look at the ointment. So far so good. The problem arises when a few pages later Baba Yaga does not only find out who is behind altering the remedies and thus discrediting her good name, but is also able to reverse the wrongdoing immediately and without much of an effort on her part.
The second instance takes place when Baba Yaga is accused by her rival of physical assault. When Baba Yaga is questioned she conveniently brings three witnesses to the police station, who swear that she was with them at the time of the assault and are well-respected members of the community. The author really missed a great opportunity here to escalate the tension. A scene where Baba is first questioned harshly and then perhaps even thrown into a cell, before her name is cleared, would’ve have been way more satisfactory.
Finally, when Baba Yaga has her big showdown with the main antagonist, she first defeats her in a sword fight and then in a fistfight, without even so much as breaking a sweat. She carries the unconscious villain to the queen as she was previously commanded. Again without any interference. This scene is the grand battle and right from the start Baba Yaga won, completely ruining the tension.
Even the internal issues that were preventing Baba Yaga from having a successful relationship with the sheriff Liam, were resolved in a rather “convenient” and easy manner.
So why is this problematic? Don’t we want the hero, especially in a romance book where a happy ending is 99% guaranteed to overcome the antagonistic force? Yes, of course we do. But only after the hero had fought, was at a place of pure desperation and used ingenuity to win. Otherwise the momentum and drama decrease way too early. Victory that was easily won will never be as sweet as victory, for which the hero had to sweat, bleed and was at the end of his/her wits.
As a reader we want to feel as if it is impossible for the hero to succeed. This makes us root harder and boosts our empathy for the main character. It also increases our engagement in the novel.
Ultimately, the protagonist always needs to undergo a growth in the novel and learn or discover something new. If the hero was equipped from the start with all the tools and knowledge on how to conquer the antagonistic force, then really there is no point in telling the story, is there?