Category Archives: Tension

Editing Tips And Tools: Tension

Some years ago, in an article about creating tension in fiction, I quoted agent and writing instructor Donald Maass on the subject:

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

Saying every page needs tension is one thing. Actually pulling it off is another.

I suggest tension is something writers should aim for but not worry about until the editing process. When a first draft is complete, it remains first, not last. Honestly, I’m a little shocked when I hear some self-publishing authors talking about their third edit, as if they have really outdone themselves by going over their manuscript so often.

In truth, a traditionally published author faces multiple editing / proofreading facets of the publishing process after they turn their completed manuscript in to the publisher. Why should self-published works do less? In other words, I advocate multiple edits or revisions, much of which an author can do as part of a self-editing process. Proof reading might be something worth handing over to someone else, because no matter how carefully we look over our work, we can still miss errors we will see as soon as the book is in print.

But back to tension.

How do we know if our book has the requisite “tension on every page”? This may seem simplistic, but I suggest looking for tension. In other words, do an entire edit with one thing in mind: is there tension in this scene?

Note, I said “scene.” I find searching for tension on every page of a manuscript rather hard. It’s hard to stay in the story and ask yourself if there’s tension because, well, you are no longer in the story, so how do you know?

Instead, by looking at scenes instead of pages, evaluating the level of tension is much easier.

What’s a scene? One writing instructor likens novel scenes to scenes in a play. Of course novels have the advantage of also showing a characters internal reactions to the actions and speech taking place on stage. The unit—both the action, dialogue, and internal discourse—together make up a scene.

You can think of a scene ending when the curtain would come down, or when the stage crew comes out to put in new scenery or new props. You can think of a scene as the end of one group of interacting with each other or the end of one day or the end of a particular activity or effort to accomplish something.

And believe me, looking for scenes, as the corollary, writing in scenes, becomes easier the more an author does it.

But here’s the secret in self-editing for tension: after identifying a scene, the author must judge whether or not there was tension.

Tension does not always mean conflict. Certainly when conflict occurs, there should be tension. But there are other ways of creating tension. For example, there can be romantic tension in which a character feels, well, romantic, and wants to move forward but may choose for his own reason (maybe he’s engaged to someone else), to refrain. In this case, the tension is less because of the romance and more because of the struggle he has with his two desires.

Basically tension comes from any type of struggle. Sometimes the struggle is external and those seem easy to identify. But they need to be genuine struggles. Too many superhero movies lack tension because there is no question about the outcome. The superhero will come out on top because, you know, superpower. That’s why superhero authors often create supervillains to confront the heroes—they want to make the struggle credible. They want to open the possibility in the viewer’s mind that the hero might lose.

Fiction needs genuine and credible struggles.

Another type of conflict that creates tension is not against evil but against better. Characters may struggle knowing whether they should do Good Thing A or Good Thing B. An example would be the character who must decide whether to save the drowning boy or to call 9-1-1 for the gunman holding a hostage. Both are needed, but he can’t do both. What should he do? Is there a third option?

Struggles don’t have to be this dramatic, but that have to matter. What a character needs to decide should hold consequences. If the result of Decision A is . . . life goes on, and the result of Decision B is . . . life gets better, there really is no tension when the character struggles to decide. I mean, the results are pretty obvious so the tension is pretty low.

All that to say, writers need to evaluate their own scenes based on whether the tension is high or low.

I’ve created a simple chart in which I write a short scene description, identify what the character wants, and then rate the tension on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.

Another thing that helps me: if I’m bored, the reader will be too.

And this: if I don’t know where the scene ends and starts, it probably needs work.

In the end, I have a picture of what I believe to be true about the level of tension in my novel, so I can easily see which sections need more work.

It’s not full-proof. We are evaluating our own work, after all, so we can wink at the parts that have low tension without realizing we are. But taking this close look and asking questions about the tension level will most likely help us eliminate the worst, lowest points of tension, and the book is bound to be better for it.

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Hiding Information From Readers

writing in diary August_Müller_TagebucheintragFrom time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.

In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:

The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.

Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?

Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.

Dobby2I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.

Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.

There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.

Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.

In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.

Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.

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What’s At Stake?

Yeah, not that kind.

Yeah, not this kind.

If a story needs tension on every page, it seems logical that authors writing fiction need to learn how to create tension. One technique is to increase stakes, that is, to make the action urgent.

Unfortunately, it seems this idea of upping stakes is too often equated with saving the world from aliens or stopping a terrorist attack. After all, what are higher stakes?

The problem, of course, is that not every story is about aliens or terrorists. And even in the stories that accommodate those elements, repetition has reduced these high stakes to a shrug unless there is more involved.

Not this kind either.

Not that kind either.

So how can a writer bring urgency to her story without threatening to blow up the White House or start a pandemic that could wipe out the human race? First, we need to look at what’s behind the stakes.

At the heart of a story is a character with a need or a goal–he wants to win the love of the princess or get a promotion at work or make his dad proud. To evaluate the stakes created by any actions these characters might take, the author must simply ask, so what?

What will the character lose if he doesn’t win the love of the princess? Well, the princess! some will answer. And that matters, why? Can’t he simply find another girl to love, one he can win?

Or what happens if he doesn’t get the promotion he wants? Won’t he simply continue working at the job he has? How about making his dad proud. If he doesn’t, what will he lose? A chance for better self-esteem? And that matters because . . .

The point is, stakes are built, in part, upon creating consequences for failure. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, equated their love with life. They chose dying rather than living without the person they loved.

However, in addition to creating consequences, these consequences must matter, and this is accomplished by creating a character the reader will care about.

As long as the reader merely has a nodding acquaintance with the protagonist, the stakes of a novel will remain low. Only when the reader cares deeply what happens to him will the stakes begin to soar.

Writing instructor Donald Maass states this principle clearly in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The wishes, needs and objectives of strangers are, to most of us, of little concern. The same is true in a reader’s relationship to a character in a story: That character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. If the character feels cold, distant or veiled, it is impossible to care. The personal stakes in the story feel low. Reader interest is weak. On the other hand, when characters are strong and appealing, and better still are portrayed warmly and with intimate candor, the stakes feel high and reader interest runs high, as well. (p. 74)

In short, personal stakes for the protagonist hinge upon how well the reader gets to know this character. Maass again:

we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy. Sympathy in turn gives power to stakes.

A corollary to this principle is that readers will care about circumstances that a sympathetic character cares about. To raise the stakes, however, the author must withhold what the character wants, must take him through a minidisaster that forces him to regroup. Each failure reminds the reader what’s at stake.

Besides personal stakes, a novelist should present public stakes–what will society lose if the heroine fails? Again, it’s easy to jump to the large failure–death and destruction. But there are different kinds of destruction. A writer should consider exploring moral choices, ethics, corruption, spiritual well-being and their affects on society.

One character, of course, is most likely not going to impact a government to wipe out all corruption or turn a society away from a questionable ethic, but this is where a novelist can allow the character to represent “everyman” and establish a universal principle by showing a particular life and situation.

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_2The old movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to mind as this type of story. When corrupt politicians tried to manipulate a Junior Senator, Mr. Smith, appointed to office to complete the term of the deceased incumbent, the young man ends up embroiled in false accusations and dishonest dealings. His efforts to do what is right eventually cause one old family friend to confess his wrong doings.

Is all of Washington cleaned of corruption? No, but Mr. Smith illustrates what an honest man willing to stand for right can accomplish. The stakes in this story involve the good of society, not just Mr. Smith’s reputation–though there is that, as well as his standing in the eyes of the woman he’s attracted to.

Perhaps this intertwining of personal and public stakes is the ultimate method of elevating both.

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Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

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