"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis
Friday, April 13, 2018
Tension on Every Page
submitted by Maxine McCoy
We've heard it several times, but we often forget. In order to write a great novel, there must be tension on every page.
How do we do that?
First of all, by tension, we don't mean every scene has to be filled with terror, suspense, or high sexual tension. There will be those, of course, but what about the pages in between?
Donald Maas says, “There must be tension on every page. Everyone knows it's necessary, but no one wants to do it. It is a heck of a lot of work. Tension on every page is the secret of great story telling. Everyone knows that. Practically no one does it.”
The secret to doing it is MICROTENSION.
Thriller writer Tess Gerittsen explains that, “In a story with a high level of conflict, there's an underlying sense that something important is always about to happen, or could happen.”
She goes on to say, “Microtension is that sense that, on every page of the novel , there's conflict in the air, or that characters are slightly off-balance. It needn't be a flat-out argument or a gun battle or a huge confrontation. In fact, you can't throw in too many major conflicts or what you'll get is melodrama. But small and continuous doses of tension keep the story moving and keep the pages turning.
Let's look at some ways to create tension:
Donald Maas says, “No scenes set in kitchens, living rooms, cars driving from one place to another, or involves drinking tea or coffee, particularly in the first fifty pages. If there there is a scene in one of those places, cut it. 99% of those scenes are inactive. If you absolutely can't cut it, make sure you add tension.”
Rayne Hall adds her “No scenes” list: no restaurants, bars, kitchens, or boardrooms.
Ways to create tension:
A ticking clock
That no turning back feeling
Frustrate your character
In each scene, give every character an agenda, and make their agendas oppose each others.
Sol Stein calls agendas “scripts.” Other writers call them “Spins.” We hear about spins and scripts during election time. One politician takes the actions of another and spins it to their opponents disadvantage. You can make a character look guilty, immoral, deceptive, or whatever you want by the spin you give their actions.
So, ask your characters two questions for each chapter or scene:
1. What's your agenda in this situation?
2. What do you believe the other character's agenda is?
Create a question. Let's say you have given a certain spin on a character's actions. If it's your MC you'll have the reader thinking, “I can't believe he'd do that. Did he, or didn't he?”
Rayne Hall says one of her favorite ways to create tension is drawing out an action. Instead of having your Heroine walk through a door, you make her wary of opening it. She hesitates. She imagines all sorts of terror-filled possibilities. The reader knows things she doesn't, which adds to the tension. Finally you have your reader thinking, DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR!!!
There are other ways to suspend the moment. In a chase scene or action scene, the pace is fast. Let's say the hero is running for his life. He turns a corner and discovers he's trapped. At this point, slow the pace by focusing on a detail unconnected to the issue—a cobweb in the corner, a grease stain on the table cloth, a lizard sunbathing on the garden wall. Describe and suspend that single moment.
Characters have expectations. Don't let them get what they want by throwing in unexpected twists.
The MC is in a strange place. She hears a noise. What is it? It sounds like . . . .
Add tension in action scenes, suspense scenes, or terror scenes by using short, choppy sentances, making the reader feel out of breath.
Add tension in dialogue by answering a question with a question:
“Who was that woman?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Why won't you tell me who she is?”
“Why are you so obsessed with her?”
Add tension with a zinger: The character expresses not only meaning, but attitude.
Make the funny parts funnier.
Make the shocking revelations more shocking.
Make the romantic elements more wildly romantic.
Find ways to increase the volume of everything in the scene.
Tension On The First Page
Donald Maas: Over and over, authors bog down their beginnings with setup and backstory. Perhaps it's because the novelist is getting to know the characters. The fact is, the author needs to know these things. The reader does not. The reader needs a story to begin.
Backstory doesn't engage the reader because it doesn't tell a story. It doesn't move the story forward. Once problems have been introduced, backstory can be artfully deployed to deepen them. Not in big chunks but a little at a time.
Ray Rhamey: No backstory in the first 100 words. No dreams. There MUST be tension in your first sentence.
Rayne Hall's first paragraph no no's:
1. The MC arises and gets ready for the day.
2. She stands in front of the mirror, describes her looks, and contemplates what to wear.
3. He gazes out the window and reflects on his past and future.
4. He sits in a bar or restaurant waiting for someone to arrive.
5. She walks, drives, or rides to a place where she expects to meet someone or do something.
According to Rhamey, the first sentence must:
1. Set a goal for the MC
2. Create a question
3. Create tension
4. Contain a conversational voice that hooks us.
Check your manuscript and see if the first sentence will intrigue your reader with tension. Enjoy your writing!