Thursday, September 22, 2011

Write Brain Report: Ratcheting Up the Tension in Your Novel by Robin Widmar

Denise Vega’s Worst Case Scenario: Ratcheting Up the Tension in Your Novel

Tension can be a negative thing – think tension headaches, or tension between co-workers or family members. Tension can also be a good thing. After all, cables under tension support bridges and communications towers. When it comes to writing fiction, tension keeps your reader turning the pages.

Author Denise Vega opened the August Write Brain by giving credit to agent Donald Maas. He’s not her agent, but his books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction helped her learn how to infuse her fiction scenes with tension.

Denise describes scenes as the building blocks of a story. Each scene is a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Beginnings and ends can be physical (such as a shift in settings) or emotional (perhaps a moment of emotional or mental recognition by the character).

Before considering tension, though, Denise suggests that you examine your scenes to make sure they’re well structured. Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. If you can’t identify these parts, then the scene needs work.

Every scene in your novel should serve a purpose in the overall story. For a scene to remain part of your story, something must happen that causes a change in the character, reveals something about the character, moves the story forward, or furthers the plot. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why is this scene important? Remember, the scene needs to be important to the story, not just important to you.
  • What is the scene’s purpose? Does your character change in any way because of what’s happened? Change doesn’t have to be external and huge. It can be subtle and internal, such as a shift in a character’s perspective. Does the scene move the story forward, or add something to the plot? How do changes affect other characters besides the protagonist?
  • What is this scene about? It’s best to determine this before you start writing a scene, but everyone has a different process for crafting story, so you may discover a scene’s true purpose as you’re writing it.
  • Is the goal at the end of the scene the same as it was in the beginning? Why? What has or has not changed?
Look at the opening and closing of your scene - think of them as “bookends.” Does the opening pull you in? Does the scene’s ending leave you with either a sense of satisfaction or a question about what will happen next? Do the opening and closing connect to each other in some way, making it feel complete?

Once you’ve made sure your scenes are sound, you can start thinking about ramping up the tension through action, dialogue, and description.

  • Action: What will happen to the character? Will he or she succeed in completing something or escaping a situation? Tension can be added by increasing the challenges your protagonist must overcome to succeed.
  • Dialogue/Interaction between characters: You can increase tension by being selective about what your characters say, as well as how they say it. Tension can also be present in what is left unsaid. Show internal dialogue as well as external.
  • Description: You can raise tension through subtle description (a sense of foreboding), or by a crisp account of a physical or emotional conflict between characters. Use pacing and punctuation to increase tension. Put the reader in the character’s shoes.
Some additional tips to increase tension:

  • Combine scenes that have similar levels of tension to create a single, tension-infused scene.
  • Alternate between description, dialogue (external and internal), and action.
  • Use well-placed foreshadowing.
  • Add a “ticking clock” to provide a sense of urgency.
  • End a scene or chapter with something unexpected that forces your character to regroup.
  • Balance high tension scenes with some “down time” to give readers a break.
Denise had us read scenes from three different books and asked us to analyze them for tension. We identified scene elements and discussed how each writer escalated emotions for characters and the reader, demonstrated a sense of urgency, and showed changes that kept the stories moving forward.

Using tension effectively can be a challenge, but the work will pay off when you create a story that readers won’t want to put down.

To learn more about Denise Vega and her books, or to check out more writing tips, go to

About the writer: Robin Widmar works to support a horse habit and writes to follow a dream. When she’s not writing about dragons, demons, or firefighting, she discusses the rampant typographical errors threatening to take over the written world at The World Needs a Proofreader (

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