Creating Tension In A Scene
Tension is what keeps the reader turning pages. Caring about what happens to your character is the most important hook a writer creates. There must be something happening and something at stake in every scene. Because of the importance of pacing, tension isn’t appropriate for every scene. We need peaks and valleys. Our audience must be able to recognize the calm spots in order to recognize high intensity.
It’s important to build traits into the characters that will lead to trouble in important scenes. Impetuousness, independence, pride and naiveté are all qualities that can get your character into jams. Make the character’s conflict an inherent part of him. Starting with solid conflict assures tense scenes will occur throughout the story.
Set up the tension. Keep saying “No” to your character. Whatever it is he wants, hold it back. Don’t try to fix things--that comes later. Much of the time I don’t even worry how I will fix a problem. If I don’t know, I can usually figure I’ve kept the reader guessing. The best conflict is that which appears unsolvable, so heap situations on your story people so they can prove their mettle. Don’t make their situation easier, always make it more difficult.
Look at your character’s goals and ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Then take the worst thing a step further. For emotional intensity, conflict should be directly related to the character’s internal goals and to their backstory. Don’t rely on “incidents” to carry scenes or conflict. Heaping one calamity after another can end up leaving the reader breathless and without direction. By an incident, I mean something that could happen to anyone and doesn’t really have emotional importance to this particular character.
Here’s a simplistic example: A torrential thunderstorm with hail that destroys property or crops would be devastating for anyone. But if your character’s goal is to become a success by growing the largest tomato for the state fair, and her parents died when a storm washed out a bridge when she was young, you’ve got the basis for a tense scene.
Jayne Ann Krentz once suggested that in pivotal scenes you should think “larger-than-life, emotion and contrast.” A plot is basically a series of pivotal scenes that will cause your two main characters to confront each other frequently on an intense emotional level. Arrange these scenes in your story so that they escalate in terms in intensity.
Leaving details about the character in question is an effective way to intrigue your reader. Don’t fill in all the answers, but give them enough so that they’re not frustrated. With most techniques, what to use and what to omit is a balance, one that depends on your story and your characters.
You can’t leave out something and then just throw it in at the end because it needs to be told or because it’s the end of the book. You must make the reader want to know the information by planting a seed, alluding to this mystery and using it as a teaser. Like this line: “She hated funerals.” Someone dies, but your heroine won’t go to the services. The reader is left knowing there is a reason and wanting to know the reason. The lure of the unknown draws the reader further and further into the story. Revealing too much takes away the seductive lure of discovery.
The reader must know something is missing. We don’t want to make him feel as though he’s had something pulled over on him once the story ends. We don’t want him surprised that something is revealed, we want him surprised at what that revelation is.
Another approach is the Hitchcock technique: Let the reader know something that none of the story people know. This is successful because it keeps the reader guessing when the character will find out and how they will react.
In a romance, love scenes are action scenes, and if you’ve kept sexual tension high throughout the first chapters, the reader is eagerly awaiting this scene. If the love scene happens at the end of the book, it’s a resolution--by now the hero and heroine have realized they love each other and are culminating their physical relationship. All external conflicts should have been tied up by this time.
If a love scene takes place before internal conflict is settled, as a plot point or as an added dilemma, then you must follow the scene with a new problem or hook or story question that keeps the story moving. If tension is allowed to be dropped, your story will stop moving forward.
The classic example, of course, is where the hero/heroine declare their love, everything seems blissful, and then one of them discovers some truth about the other that pushes them apart again. This is used so much in books and movies because it works so well, but it’s always fun to think up something new, so give freshness another thought when you’re plotting.
Change is what keeps the reader turning pages: New challenges, new information, new twists and added complications.
Backstory in a scene of tension slows the pace. Save it for sequels and then use only sparingly. If you need to reveal information, you can do it through a quick flash of internalization or a secondary character’s dialogue.
Hint at things to make the reader want to know.
Keep the reader wanting to know more.
In a faster-paced scene avoid speech tags and use action instead. “I can’t take this any more!” James slammed his fist on the table.
Use shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and clipped dialogue. This is not the time for descriptions or internalization or lengthy speeches. Use shorter, simpler words that don’t distract the reader from the action.
Don’t be wordy. Don’t echo dialogue with exposition. As you should always do, use specific adjectives, vivid nouns and strong verbs.
Use a hook at the end of a paragraph.
Use a hook when you switch point of view.
Use a hook at the end of each scene.
And of course, use a hook at the end of each chapter.
How is this done? Say something or allude to something that makes the reader ask herself “Why?” Make her want to see a character reaction. Make her want to find out what happens next.
Keep the reader in suspense and expecting by not giving answers. Present questions and give just enough information to keep the story moving forward. If you do answer a question, then it should be information that only opens up a bigger question.
As a rule, don’t end a scene with hope or acceptance or resolve--those are for internal narrative or decisions. Do end the scene with a story question, worry, pain, anger, frustration or a negative reaction. Our goal is to keep the reader turning pages because he has a question, is engaged and wants to see what happens next. Tension is the state of excitement, nervousness or concern over the outcome that doesn’t allow the reader to relax until he gets to the end.
Wrap it all up at the end. Don’t leave any loose threads and show your reader a satisfying conclusion. We don’t like tension in real life. We want to experience all the chaos and drama through our characters’ viewpoints and know that in the end everything will turn out all right.
Writing With Emotion, Tension, and Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel
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