Creating Tension and by Defining What Characters Are Hiding

“27 Essential Principles of Story” by Daniel Joshua Rubin offers incredibly useful tips for creating stories with rich, detailed, and engaging characters. One useful principle for developing characters is to look at what characters are hiding from others.

When a character has a secret, that immediately creates tension because we want to know when other will discover this secret and what will happen afterwards.

For example in “Big,” the hero is a young kid who suddenly finds himself trapped in his grown up body. Now the tension is how will he hide his true self and what will happen when people eventually discover the truth?

On a more internal, emotional level, think of “Groundhog Day” where the hero is a narcissistic, arrogant weatherman, but he’s in love with his co-worker. He wants the love of his co-worker but he’s afraid to reveal it. The tension comes from what will he do to win the lover of his co-worker and what will happen when he does?

Every character has a secret of some kind that they want to hide from others. Sometimes that secret might be huge (Darth Vader is really Luke Skywalker’s father) but most of the time, that secret is much smaller but emotionally important. Think of every romantic comedy where the two love interests are hiding their true feelings for each other until the end.

Think of every character wearing a mask. What does that mask portray to others? When will happen when that mask is removed? Asking these questions creates tension in every scene as characters struggle to retain their masks while resisting attempts to remove their masks.

By thinking of every major characters as wearing a mask, you can write more compelling scenes where every character is protecting their masks or trying to remove the masks of others. This helps you write characters who are more than just two-dimensional stereotypes who exist solely to move the plot along.

Put a mask on each character and keep them struggling to maintain it. That helps create a great story.

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