I am a huge fan of the genius that is Joss Whedon, especially his TV shows, and most especially, BTVS. You don’t have to be a Buffy fan to agree that tension is what keeps a reader turning the pages. Believe me when I say that BTVS had tension.
I’m sure we all know that tension comes in a variety forms, but Buffy had a couple standards that appeared time and again. I love these because they work and having one or two make a surprise appearance in a manuscript only helps. Now on to my favorite form of tension.
1. Who’s up for a Taboo Tryst? OR Off-the-wall improbable couples we root for.
Let me reiterate by saying this is my favorite sort of tension. Who doesn’t love some good old-fashioned sexual heat? Taboo liaison anyone? Love-triangle [I know, I know, but still]? There are so many ways to spin it. Let’s look to Buffy for examples.
I’ll get this over with first: it’s Spuffy. All day.
Now on to the other stuff.
If there was something Buffy was always rife with [besides vampire butt-kicking and witty dialogue] it was sexual tension. Whether she was pining over Angel or panting reluctantly over Spike, Buffy wanted a guy, and usually one she couldn’t have.
The taboo relationship seems like a tried and true trope, but there are ways of putting a spin on old standards. It doesn’t just apply to the vampire/slayer variety. There were a lot of couples on Buffy’s seven seasons. Let’s look to a few for inspiration.
First things first, Buffy and Angel. She’s the new girl in town trying to get it right, he’s the bad boy gone straight. Together they make the dramatic couple that’s sure to fall apart. Everyone knows that the reformed bad boy [or bad girl] is going to mess up. Or will they? I don’t know, surprise me.
Buffy and Spike. We know who she is, but he’s the bad guy! Not the bad boy, but the villain. But, but, how can he love her with no soul? I don’t know, author, how can he? This is probably the most improbable couple, and also the one I think is the most exciting. There is a lot of reluctant passion here, so there’s no need to explain where the sexual tension is coming from, but when we throw the hero and the villain together its either love or hate. People will want to know how badly or how awesome this will end.
It is just me or did Xander get loads of play on Buffy?
Cordelia and Xander. Together they make the unlikely couple. She’s the popular snob, he’s the loveable, slacker goofball. Now consider the tension this brings with it. You have two entirely different individuals that find themselves attracted to each other much to the disgust/chagrin/dismay *pick your word* of their pals. Nice set up for tension as it is, but do they handle it? They resist: sexual tension-slash-longing. They sneak around: sexual tension-slash-covert operations. They make it happen: sexual tension-slash-possible ostracism.
Willow and Xander. She’s the girl he never thought about like ‘that’, he’s the boy she always thought about like ‘that’. Together they make the ‘what if?’ or always wondered about couple. When that always wondered about feeling starts to surface along comes the sexual tension. Now being in that person’s presence is like a noir film copper questioning: you’re sweating and nervous about saying the wrong thing to a person you’re sure is judging you, and boy is that light in your eyes suddenly very bright. Who doesn’t love that moment when characters realize they should give it a try? We were all thinking it, weren’t we? But whoa! Hold on! What about Cordelia?
2. Let’s Insert a helpless/random character into an already stressful life/situation! OR Who the hell is Dawn and where did she come from?
Alright, so mystery insertion of Dawn aside, adding a third wheel to an already stressful scene builds tension. For instance, we’ve got a fighting couple in the street, so let’s add random wants-to-be-a-hero bystander, now we’ve got double the tension. On the other hand, we can also use a secondary character, someone who is already a staple in the main character’s life. Let’s use an end of first date scene. Two awkward nervous teens doing the ‘should we kiss’ dance, one grows a pair, leans in, puckers up…the porch light goes on. Now Dad’s in the scene wearing a robe and boxers. Hello, additional tension. Same with Dawn. Buffy’s busy defending the hell mouth, now we have a little sis who’s actually a ball of energy key created by monks inserted into the Summers’ life through false memories. Do all third wheels need to be so dramatic? Nah, but the more annoying and dramatic, the better. By inserting Dawn-like characters, we give the protagonist something to fight for, something to defend, or someone who comes in at the most inopportune moments to muck everything up.
3. You Were supposed to be my ally. OR Faith and her sayings that I had to look up to understand.
There’s a new slayer on the scene. What’s better than one, right? Wrong. Faith is a wild-child, a loose cannon, and she likes the draw of the dark side. Are we feeling the ominous foreboding yet? Were we surprised when she went wrong? Probably not, but Buffy was. At least a little. Nothing adds tension like a betrayal. The more shocking, the more heartbreaking it is to the character, the more tension we add. Remember when she set out to kill Angel? She may have been bad, but let’s make that betrayal go for the gold. If you want to set up a betrayal make it big. Set the stakes high. Let’s look at another betrayal. Anyone remember when Angel lost his soul? Boy, did that add chapters of tension, especially because she still loved him. That is just another side to betrayal, the fact that the main character may not want to accept it. When Angel killed Jenny [Giles woman, remember her?] wasn’t Giles so mad at Buffy? Take that betrayal and turn it on everyone. Not only has that back stabber trampled on your now very vulnerable main character, but now they’re messing with everyone they love too. Who’s going to take that? Better not be your protagonist.
4. Everyone you love will die. OR Joss Whedon takes the reins.
As everyone knows, Joss Whedon will kill everyone you love. Buffy died. Twice. Angel died. Anya died. Jenny died. Joyce died. Spike died. Am I missing someone? Probably. Now kill someone. Someone has to die. What’s that? You don’t want to kill someone? Well, hopefully, your readers don’t want you to either, that’s the point. Who will it be? I don’t know. If you can kill your main character, go for it. Otherwise, kill someone they love, someone they will be lost without. Not only are we building the tension, but we’re adding [hopefully] emotional impact. Let’s show everyone what that main character is made of. And for God’s sake, in true Whedon fashion, pick a character people like.