Monday, April 03, 2006

Keeping the Tension

At our last RWA chapter meeting, we had a mini workshop on including tension in every scene of your novel. Since then, I've really focused on this particular aspect in my own novel. But I'm also noticing it in other places.

For example, we went to go see Ice Age: The Meltdown at the movies on Saturday night (excellent movie! I highly recommend it). As I watched, I couldn't help but notice how the writers had created tension in each and every scene - of course, there was more tension towards the end, the kind of "edge-of-your-seat" tension. There was definitely a roller-coaster feel to the movie - and that's true in most stories. You have certain points in your story that have much more tension than others. But is it imperative that every scene include tension?

Here's what I think. While I believe that every scene should propel your plot forward, I don't believe that every scene should have the sort of "edge of your seat" tension to it. If that were true, the reader would constantly be holding their breath - perhaps literally and figuratively - because the tension was so high.

I think there are degrees of tension. There's the fast-paced, action-oriented tension, the kind that leaves fingernail marks in your couch, and the slower, more subtle tension, that allows you to relax and catch your breath.

So how can you create this tension? Deb Dixon offered this idea at our conference last October that can also be used when you're creating your conflict.

When you're in the midst of plotting and trying to create tension in your novel, ask yourself, "Wouldn't it be terrible if..."

For example, in Independence Day (yes, it was a movie-watching weekend!), towards the end the jet fighters are realizing that they do not have enough missles to defeat the aliens. You think all is lost. Then another fighter (Randy Quaid, in a very funny role) shows up, says sorry he's late, and informs everyone that he has one more missile left. As he's headed for the spaceship, he prepares to fire. And then...the unthinkable happens. It malfunctions.

The tension went from low to high to super high. And it made me realize that this is a key component of story-telling. While I think I always realized this, watching it on the two movies really made it "click."

Of course, in certain novels, we're not going to have the kind of tension that could mean life or death for the planet. Instead, we're dealing on a much smaller scale. But when you ask yourself the question, "Wouldn't it be terrible if...", keep that in mind. The tension you produce must match the kind of story you're telling.

In Writing News...

I accomplished quite a bit on Saturday - three pages, I think - and took a nap! It was a wonderful, relaxing afternoon. I wish it would have lasted longer!


  1. Jack Bickham discussed this in his Scene & Structure, a book put out by Writer's Digest. It is essential to give the readers a bridge in order for them to absorb the tension. Problem for the writer is that the bridge scenes aren't any fun to write.

  2. I actually have this book - one recommended to me by an agent. And yeah - the bridge scenes aren't fun to write, but they are essential.

  3. Very good post, Melissa. It's a good reminder for all of us writers. Tension can be the thing that makes or breaks your novel.

  4. My favorite book on scene tension (and sequels) is Dwight Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. There are lots of online articles about the technique, all you have to do is a search.
    I agree with you, all scenes have to move the plot forward, but you don't want people to chew their nails for the whole book, they might not have fingers left to turn the pages by the end!

  5. Yep, you're right, Melissa :-) If every scene was tense, readers would likely give up from exhaustion. It's all about the pacing!

  6. I think it's important to have a combination of physical and emotional tension. You can't have them running around like rabbits the entire time, but you can have two people feeling conflicted about their romance, and you can escalate the tension in many ways. It's kind of fun to torture them. :)

  7. Michelle - excellent point. A combination of physical and emotional is essential.

  8. good points about tension. Sometimes I look back at a scene and think "what was I thinking???" or "what the heck did that scene do anyway??". Thinking about wouldn't it be terrible if... or the heroine would have a FIT if.... those kind of things can help keep the tension going.

  9. Great ideas on tension!

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