To add tension to a scene, make a character too hot or too cold. If you fiddle with a story’s thermostat, you can force even a wishy-washy Hamlet into action. This is because our bodies constantly send out feelers, via the senses. If our fingertips tingle with cold, we put on gloves. If our hair feels hot to the touch, we seek shade. The body’s response to temperature extremes can drive an entire plot.
I learned this lesson from a short Russian novel. Set in the extreme climate of Siberia, Alexander Solzhenitsin’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich centers around the need for warmth. The plot-points hinge on minor incidents: the moment Shukov misplaces a glove; the moment the gulag’s overseers confiscate his felt boots. The protagonist can’t sit around thinking about the meaning of life. He must act to keep his hands warm. He must do something to stave off frostbite. A character with a compelling need to do something equals plot.
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, says that a human’s most basic needs are for breath, food, water, sex, sleep, excretion, and homeostasis (which I take to mean maintaining a constant body-temperature). Writers can use any of these animal needs to put pressure on a protagonist. I’m only focusing on one need—that of keeping our bodies within the “comfort” zone, roughly 68 to 87 degrees—but if a scene feels flabby, try making the character desperate for food, water, or sleep. Whichever stressor you choose, your character will be prodded to stop mulling over life’s imponderables.
I’m not saying that a character with a parched throat or empty stomach stops thinking. That’s not to the case. Even a prisoner confronted with Siberian winter has a rich inner life. Shukov is thinking all the time about how to stay warm, and the reader leans forward to see if he will succeed.
Shukhov always got up at reveille, but today he didn’t. He’d been feeling lousy since the night before—with aches and pains and the shivers, and he just couldn’t manage to keep warm that night. In his sleep he’d felt very sick and then again a little better. All the time he dreaded the morning. But the morning came, as it always did. Anyway, how could anyone get warm here, what with the ice piled up on the window and a white cobweb of frost running along the whole barracks where the walls joined the ceiling? And a hell of a barracks it was. Shukhov stayed in bed. He was lying on the top bunk, with his blanket and overcoat over his head and both his feet tucked in the sleeve of his jacket.
Notice the connection between cause and effect. Because Shukov couldn’t stay warm, he slept poorly and did something out of character. He lingered in bed. Shukov didn’t weigh the ethics of dodging his work detail. He didn’t make a conscious decision. He simply surrendered to a bodily impulse. By staying in bed, he made his life instantly more complicated.
Let’s take another example, this time from real life. Recently, I was talking to Arizona writer Greg Williams about this blog post. A retired anesthesiologist, Greg is calm and methodical, not the sort of guy who ever raises his voice or acts on impulse. One day eleven years back, Greg was making a move from Phoenix to Flagstaff. It was June and summer heat scorched the Valley of the Sun. Greg had rented a U-Haul and loaded it with furniture, killing himself to finish during the early morning hours. By noon, Greg (hot already) began motoring north, satisfied that he was right on schedule. A mile or so from his house, he turned on the air con. It didn’t work. He considered going back to U-Haul, but the thought of switching trucks had zero appeal. He unrolled the windows and let in the midday, blast-furnace wind.
Just past Anthem, with the saguaro thick on the basalt cones of ancient volcanoes and the Agua Fria Wilderness dead ahead, Greg noticed the temperature gauge. The needle had swung to the danger zone. He muttered an expletive, and then remembered something his dad had told him back in the day when cars routinely overheated: Turn on the heat. That would divert heat from the engine.
With the heat on and windows open, Greg drove the five hours to Flagstaff at 55 mph and unloaded the truck, leaving in back a pile of folded furniture pads. He had put a deposit on them, and the contract stipulated that he return them when he returned the vehicle.
Greg pulled into the U-Haul lot in Flag, and the agent asked how the truck had performed. Face red, a vein throbbing in his temple, Greg told the agent about the problem with the thermostat.
“And just so you know,” Greg said, “I’m keeping the pads.”
The agent looked at him and swallowed. “That’s a good idea, Dr. Williams. I was about to offer.”
As Greg told me, “On any other day, I never would have done that, but because I was so hot, if I hadn’t gotten the pads, there would have been blood on the floor.”
The moral of the story is this. If you want to see what a mild-mannered character will do when pushed, expose her or him to extreme heat or cold. The survival instinct will kick in. Characters will act in ways you never would have predicted, and even a routine road trip will gain tension.