Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In a comedy, the main character ends up better off at the end of the story than he or she was at its beginning. A tragedy is just the opposite: the protagonist ends up better off at the conclusion of the narrative than he or she was at its start. The main character in a comedy may not end up well off or happy. He or she may be only relatively better off or happier than he or she was at the story’s beginning. A disease, believed to be fatal, might, instead of killing the protagonist, merely cripple, or disable, him or her. Likewise, although the main character in a tragedy will end up worse off or more miserable at the end of the tale than he or she was initially, he or she may actually go from bad, rather than good, to worse off.
Gustav Freytag, as I pointed out in a previous post, breaks dramas into five acts, the second one of which, which constitutes the rising action, he says, complicates the story’s initial, basic conflict, usually by tossing one obstacle after another, each more serious and more difficult to overcome than the previous, into the protagonist’s path or attempt to realize his or her goal. Dean Koontz says much the same thing when he advises writers to make it as hard on the main character as possible. Likewise, Joss Whedon told Sarah Michelle Gellar that, to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer as compelling a series as possible, it was necessary to make the character she played suffer as much as possible. Readers cheer on main characters who suffer to succeed, and, as soon as a protagonist overcomes one problem, another, worse one needs to arise, just as, when Hercules sought to kill the Hydra, cutting off one of its nine heads, two new heads appeared from the resulting wound, making his task always twice as difficult as it originally had been.
In other words, during the beginning of the story, during its rising action, a writer must make everything worse and worse for his or her protagonist. Koontz demonstrates this technique (as do most popular novelists) in all of his books. In Relentless, a sociopath who also happens to be a critic, attacks the protagonist (a popular novelist!) and his family. Warned that the antagonist is a relentless killer, the writer packs a few bags, planning to take his wife and son with him and flee their home. Rather stupidly leaving their son unattended in the back seat of their getaway car, the parents, after hearing a cellular telephone left in a closet by their assailant ring, witness their clock radios reset themselves and begin counting down toward explosions. They flee back to the car, only to find their son missing. A bad situation (looming explosions) has gotten even worse (their son is missing as the bombs are about to detonate).
By taking a tip from Koontz, Whedon, and other popular storytellers in plotting the action of your story so that one problem, as soon as it is resolved, is overtaken by a more difficult one in which the stakes (one’s home is about to be destroyed) are increased (one’s son is missing and may be killed), you, too, can generate and maintain suspense while complicating your story’s basic conflict.