Danger doesn’t have to be external. A physical threat–being chased by tigers or a gunman is one thing, choosing to cheat on your partner is another. Is your story in need of some tension augmentation? Consider cranking up the heat with a heavy dose of internal danger, aka emotional or psychological danger.
Defining Emotional/Psychological Danger
When your character’s sense of self is challenged, you’re in the realm of emotional/psychological danger. Think home-life, work-life, community standing, and all the other ways your character defines themselves as an individual. If your character is a house of cards standing on pillars of self, what happens when you threaten one of the pillars? How will your character respond to the fall or the threat of the fall?
In Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, each character is dealing with secrets and threats, some physical, but many are emotional. For example, lower-income newcomer, Jane has a young son named, Ziggy. On the first day of school, Ziggy is accused of choking Renata’s daughter, Amabella. Renata, one of the wealthy elite, threatens to instantly ostracize Jane and Ziggy. She starts building the outcast walls by inviting everyone to Amabella’s birthday party, the known event of the season, but leaves Ziggy off the list.
The choking incident is physical, but the reaction of the characters is emotional. The adult responses are like dominoes falling forward. Renata’s exclusionary birthday party incident is tinder for a slow build-up to bonfire proportions. Two other wealthy characters, Madeline and Celeste, rally around Jane, dividing the loyalties of the parents in Ziggy and Amabella’s class.
Using Internal Danger in the past, the present, and the future.
Internal danger can live in the past and the present and it weighs heavily on future outcomes. Long-term mental abuse can have serious repercussions later in a person’s life. This is great for backstory. The events in your present timeline could be naturally affected by internal danger experienced in the past. Does an event in the present trigger a response to a past event?
In Big Little Lies, Ziggy is the product of a violent rape. Jane brings this secret to her new life in a new town. She also carries the notion that Ziggy, an all-around sweet boy, might be harboring some explosively violent DNA. This internal danger creates tension. Did Ziggy, who vehemently denies the accusations, really choke Amabella? Who should Jane believe, her child who has never acted violently before, or a child she has never met? As you can see, past events feed Jane’s present-day state of mind.
Here’s another example of present internal danger. What would happen if your character cuts off a person while driving to their first day of work only to find out that the person they road-raged, is their new supervisor? How does this simple act of aggression trigger future events?
Internal danger requires planning.
Like the domino effect showcased in Big Little Lies, internal danger is a long game. To utilize this tool to its fullest potential, this type of tension needs some serious planning, sprinkled out over many chapters. Each tiny action should have a bigger (not equal) reaction if you plan it right. By creating these tiny explosions, you create a story that demands readers’ attention.
For more information about building tension read here.