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Putting tension in your writing

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BY CHRISTINE PETERSON
All good stories need a beginning, middle and end. I know it sounds simple, but bear with me.
In newswriting in particular, we focus on the current issue or topic. We write stories about a bighorn sheep trapping, a fire or tips for catching that big brown trout. Putting the news out is important. But in our haste to cover a topic or event, we sometimes miss the story.
Stories are not only what hook people, but what ultimately reel them in. You need to convince readers at the beginning that they want to know how it ends. Building a little bit of drama or tension in your writing is one of the best ways to keep someone going.
Don’t make anything up, of course, or create drama where there isn’t any. But more often than not, where there are people, there is a problem that must be solved.
Find the human, and then the story: In early 2012, a press release came out addressing new falconry regulations. I hadn’t written about falconry, so called around to judge the significance of the changes. On one of those calls, I heard about a man living in the middle of the prairie outside of my town in Wyoming who hunts with golden eagles. I knew I needed to go hunting with him. Only a fraction of falconers in the country have eagle permits.
I’d found my person, and figured the story would include color from the hunt, and maybe tell readers by the end if the bird caught anything. The longer we spent together, the more I realized his relationship to the wild creature was the story. It wouldn’t be about a regulation change or even an interesting person, but about whether a man can convince a wild bird that it’s better off with him than without.
Outline: Back to the beginning, middle and end. When you start writing, know where you want to go. Figure out how you want to lead readers to the climax and conclusion, ensuring they will follow you until your last words. It will keep you true to the story you want to tell.
Don’t give away too much too early: Be careful with this one. You want people to know what the story is about, but you also want to keep them guessing. Present the problem your character faces early so readers know what is at stake. In the falconry story, I ended the first section as he released his bird for the first time in more than a year to look for a rabbit. At that point, the bird was free to go. Readers had to keep going to find out if the eagle returned.
Use time elements: Whether you tell the story through seasons, years, months, days, hours or minutes, give readers a sense of time. Let them know something important is coming soon.
Vary sentence lengths: Short sentences can convey a sense of urgency. Mixed with longer sentences, they move readers forward in the same rhythm you would tell a friend a story over a drink or dinner.
Only use details that move the story along: Sometimes we tend to over describe. We want readers to see what we saw, and in the process we muddle a storyline. Details are what move a story, but be sure to only use ones that help your chosen topic. What boots the falconer was wearing would be less relevant than, say, the thickness of the glove he wore to hold the bird.
Use quotes and dialogue with purpose: Nothing moves a person through a scene better than a quick conversation between two characters or a well-placed quote. Readers want to hear a person in his or her own words, not just the writer’s. Conversely, nothing stops a scene like a long, wordy, explanatory quote. As writers, we can often phrase an idea clearer and with more precision than our subject. Look for quotes, like details, that create a clearer image of who your subject is and what your story is about. ♦
— Christine Peterson has spent the past four years tracking wolves, camping with Peruvian sheepherders and catching any fish that will bite for the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s statewide newspaper. When she’s not chasing stories, she can be found running or wrangling her 2-year old Labrador.
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