Have you ever tried writing a story and hit a point where you think ‘I need some extra conflict and drama’? Assuming you’re not writing slice of life where conflict isn’t much of a thing, you should have been asking yourself this question virtually non-stop. But depending on where in the story you are, the type of conflict can change dramatically.
Let’s say you’re two thirds through the story and everything’s gone to hell for your guys. At least one main character has died, you’ve pushed the rest to the edge of sanity by having disaster after disaster befall them, and the bad guys are on the verge of completing their Doomsday Weapon. But your good guys still have their home base, a place of safety from which to launch operations and provide resistance. That’s good.
Or is it? In general, when writing a story the stakes should be gradually going up to introduce tension and uncertainty at every turn. Even when the characters are at their lowest point, another disaster can still be introduced into proceedings. Especially when they’re at their lowest.
The secret ingredient here is known as tension and release, or the Rollercoaster Effect. Build up the tension slowly and surely, let the reader feel the stakes as the protagonist stumbles through the darkened house being startled by every little creak or thump. Then BAM! The protagonist gets out of the house and runs into the night. Tension is released as you realise they’re not about to be eaten by a scary monster… but now the tension creeps back up again as the reader speculates on where the monster might be…
But if you’re already well into the story and have had multiple tension and release points, what can you do to shake things up further? What can you do when you’ve already destroyed nearly all of your characters’ hopes? Where do they go when they already hit rock bottom? Simple! You destroy the foundation. Rock bottom? That’s not the lowest place you can go, not by a long shot. That’s merely the foundation your characters believe to be the bottom.
Your guys have been driven back to their home base, their hopes shattered and their belief in victory bludgeoned in a dark alley somewhere. But that base of theirs… hmm, nice looking little place. It’s a refuge, a sanctuary, an island of safety. Be a terrible shame if anything happened to it.
So how about we destroy that last bastion? Have the bad guys find the secret base and invade! Tear down that last refuge of safety and force your characters to scatter to the four winds, running for their very lives, unsure if they’ll ever meet their friends and allies again.
In Lord of the Rings we have not only the siege of Gondor, but the taking of the Shire (in the book version, didn’t happen in the movies). In Mass Effect 2 we have the Normandy being disabled and the crew captured. In Star Wars we have the threat of Yavin 4 being destroyed by the Death Star, not to mention the Empire’s invasion of Hoth at the beginning of Episode V (which is a perfect example of subverting this by having it happen at the start of a movie).
By destroying that last place of safety, you introduce uncertainty, and uncertainty is the primary driving force behind creating tension. You can think of it simply as a series of questions. Will they survive? How did the Empire find them? Where will they go next? Is anywhere safe for them now? Will they meet up and fight back? If so, HOW? They just lost their home, how can they hope to recover from that?
When you think your characters have hit rock bottom, remember this: rock bottom is merely the bedrock upon which your characters build their hopes. Even the bedrock can be destroyed, leaving your precious characters without their foundation and thus ripe for tension and conflict. There are always new depths to be plumbed.