Amelia Beamer on Creative Narrative Tension

[Here’s a brief summary of Amelia Beamer’s presentation at the Marin CWC February meeting.]

Amelia BeamerWhat makes a good story? What makes a story good? Amelia Beamer says narrative tension is the key. To keep readers turning the page, writers need to create characters who face problems the reader can relate to. And those problems need to keep on coming.

Either the characters’ attempts to solve the problem make things worse, or, if they do solve it, there’s another, equally challenging problem that comes along.  

Amelia Beamer is author of The Loving Dead (Night Shade Books), which she describes as being about horny zombies. (Barnes & Noble called it one of the top ten zombie novels of the past decade.) She’s also an independent book editor who primarily works with science fiction, fantasy, and other popular fiction.

Readers are interested in failure, Beamer says. Or at least the possibility of failure. In popular fiction, the problems tend to be external, like a bomb about to explode. High stakes. In literary fiction, the problems are more likely to be internal, the characters grappling with their emotions. Embarking on difficult emotional journeys.

Many protagonist face both internal and external problems. If the author can keep escalating those problems, that creates narrative tension and keeps readers turning the page.

What makes a story is that something changes, or a character recognizes change is possible. Stories, like jokes, like music, have structures that are familiar. What satisfies readers, Beamer says, is the familiar buildup and release of tension that most stories have combined with the newness of your particular story. We’re wired to pay attention to story, she says. We think we might learn something that helps us survive. Stories are a fantastic way to learn because we don’t have to experience the danger ourselves, we can follow a character taking the risks.

We like to see humans in extreme situations. That’s part of the appeal of dystopias. We’re aware that everything we take for granted could all go away. Dystopias provide a road map for survival after the fall.

Beamer reads a lot of manuscripts, and sees a lot of writers making the same mistakes. Overcomplicating the story. Repeating themselves. Creating characters that are too passive or don’t have enough at stake. Who meander their way through events.

More than anything, she says, the author has to know what the character wants.