Balancing Tension


Scott Johnson on the Dark Angel Fiction Writing blog posted about creating tension in every genre. The post gave tips on how to build the tension slowly over time without losing the reader’s interest. He wrote:

My own definition of tension as it relates to horror, and writing in general, is taking your characters to the edge and refusing to push them over.  It’s a subtle build of events, each one another notch on the ratchet that brings him closer to the inevitable end.  But more than just careening toward that end, it’s in how he gets there that’s important.  It isn’t enough to get your character from point A to point Z.  It’s the roadblocks (points B-Y) you set up in front of him that make the story. Each one brings him closer to the edge.

I gotta say this is something I struggle with.

Specifically, I have a hard time keeping tension high during “down time.” By down time, I mean the scenes between the action, where the characters get to catch their breath before launching into the next brawl.

It’s a delicate balancing act because you can’t slack off too much, or things get boring.

On the other hand you can’t have action ALL THE TIME OR YOU END UP NUMBING YOUR READER TO ANYTHING EXCITING WHATSOEVER, KIND OF LIKE THIS, THE ALL CAPS THING. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT’S IMPORTANT AND WHAT ISN’T? HOW LONG TO YOU GO BEFORE YOU STOP READING THIS BECAUSE I’M PRACTICALLY YELLING AT YOU FOR NO REASON?

OK. Enough of that, I think you get the point.

So, here’s what I do (or at least attempt to do, LOL!) to keep the tension high:

  • Tight sentences (reading aloud can help eliminate extraneous words)
  • Tight dialogue that keeps the plot moving
  • Limited backstory seeded around the manuscript in bits
  • Limited, but pertinent description–HOW and WHAT you describe something can give HELLA deets about your character and his/her “voice” and it doesn’t have to go on ad nauseum
  • If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, I cut it, no matter how “nice” it is or how much I like it
  • Up the ante every chance I get
  • Create conflict between characters
  • Create conflict between the POV character’s inner thoughts with what they actually say

Your turn. What tips and techniques do you have to keep the tension high?

AND, how do you keep tension high during the “down times???”

Be sure to check out Lydia’s post on 2011 Writerly Goals for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog.

PLUS, let’s give a warm welcome to our newest contributor, Sarah Fine, YA writer, blogger, and child psychologist, repped by Kathleen Ortiz!! She’ll be posting her responses on the third Wednesdays of every month.

Welcome, Sarah! Glad to have you aboard!!

Also, fantasy and paranormal writer and blog buddy, Ciara Knight is interviewing me over at her blog today! Stop in and say hi!

Every Wednesday

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13 comments on “Balancing Tension

  1. Cheree Smith says:

    I agree with the tight sentences. To keep tension up, the story needs to flow, and that’s not through wordy sentences.

  2. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the welcome! I’m happy to be part of the sisterhood. And, great post today! I don’t necessarily think in terms of down-time and action, though I love your all caps analogy. I always ask–is this scene absolutely necessary to drive the plot forward? If not, it must go–whether it’s action-packed or not.

  3. Ciara Knight says:

    Welcome, Sarah. I love your name. My pen name was originally going to be Ciara fine. Fine is my greatgrand father’s last name. 🙂 So, I already like you. LOL
    Anyway, great post again today, Laura! Tension is a hard thing to maintain in a novel. You made some great points.

  4. Stephanie McGee says:

    If I need something to be tense, I’ll use pretty clipped sentences. When the tension eases off, the sentences get a little longer, a little more complete.

    Gonna mark this one for later re-read.

  5. Christine Fonseca says:

    Balance – that says it all. You need the occassional pauses – the breaths – in order to have somewhere to go with the tension. Great post and congrats on your interview and the other fun news.

  6. Talli Roland says:

    That was a fantastic post! It’s all about balance, really, isn’t it. Sounds simple — shame it’s so hard!

  7. lexcade says:

    Sometimes, I think you write posts just for me 😉

    Big welcome to Sarah! I can’t wait to read your contributions!

    Off to read your interview, Laura.

  8. vtremp says:

    I think you did a great job of summing up the ways to keep the tension high in a manuscript. Donald Maass says that any scene set in a kitchen, in a car, over tea or coffee, or where characters just think over what they and the reader already know MUST go.

    Vicki
    http://www.vbtremper.wordpress.com

  9. lbdiamond says:

    Cheree–yup, tight sentences make allll the difference!

    Sarah–great point–the scene must keep the plot moving–absolutely!

    Ciara–thanks!

    Stephanie–great point–shorter sentences really pick up the tension and longer ones ease it–I like this idea!

    Christine–that’s totally true!!!! breaths between–lovely!

    Talli–it IS hard, LOL! Yet when done right, it looks effortless.

    Lexcade–aww, thanks!

    Vtremp–excellent tip–thanks for sharing that!

  10. I think your tips are all good. I try to do much the same thing. When I think I’m all done and read it aloud, I pay particular attention anytime I get bored or my attention wanders. That’s when I know something needs attention. Again.

  11. Love this tips. Gonna go check out your interview.

  12. I wouldn’t change a thing. I love the post. Great advice.

  13. Cinette says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’m struggling with this topic right now.

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