Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I'm feeling...tense...

So I asked what I should write about today, and Kreekie said "tension, how to keep it going without going overboard".

My first thought was, "Do I KNOW anything about that?" Well, I have some thoughts, anyway. I'll post those, and y'all can pop in with your comments.

So, how to keep tension going (because I love lists):

1. Questions.
One of the best ways to keep tension going--and to keep the reader involved, which is often the same thing--is to keep offering questions. There should of course be the large plot arc of the book, with its own major questions that will come to crisis and then be resolved. But you can't hang all the tension on that, or you will quickly bore the readers. You'll sound like you're playing on a one-key piano.

Within the large arc there should be many, many smaller question/resolution cycles. They could be minor, immediate questions (will she get the horse across the stream in the rain? How?) or obstacles in the course of the larger story (what will happen when the villain DOES catch her? Will she escape?). You do need to resolve these questions as they come up; otherwise the story will quickly prove unsatisfying. The trick is to resolve one question and immediately, or after a very brief rest pause, introduce another.

I think the question issue is a large part of why many books fall flat in the first couple of chapters, when the author starts with "backstory", or How Things Were Before the Conflict. There's no question, no mystery. No mystery, no tension.

2. Movement
Diana Gabaldon taught me this one, and it's a very, very good trick for avoiding description drag. (You know what that is, right? When the author stops the action to describe the setting, or the character's clothes, or the room? And you the reader start to yawn and fidget, and your eye pops down the page trying to find when Something Happens next?) I hate description drag, and I am a premiere skipper.

So the trick, you ask? Simple. Put movement in every paragraph. It could be the actions of one of the characters, of someone or something in the environment, or even fire crackling or the breeze blowing--movement keeps the readers in the moment. Here, let me find a description para...(not as easy as you might think; as I said, I skip these, so I don't have many. My description is usually combined with an action para anyway).

Okay, here's one:

From The Murderess's Tale, Copyright Susan Adrian, 2006, All Rights Reserved

Market Square was full of townsfolk engaged in the complex negotiations of buying and selling wares. Though the morning was still chill enough to require a cloak, the whole square was bright with sunlight; the contrast with the dark alley in which I stood, combined with the turmoil of activity, gave me the sense of being the sole audience for a mummer's play. I had to shade my eyes as a tinker's cart wheeled past, her ungainly collection of polished silver, copper, and tin flashing with fierce intensity. "Tiiiiiiiiin pans!" she screeched, voice high and hoarse. "Lovely tiiiiin pans!"

I don't know if that's the BEST example, exactly, but you see what I mean. I could've just described what the square looked like, but instead I added action and sound to make it more alive.

3. End Chapters Well
I think there are two main ways to end chapters, and maybe you need to have a balance of both to keep the flow going.

The first way, and my favorite, is: cliffhangers. Not the Dan Brown type, exactly, but leaving the reader with major uncertainty. Chapter breaks are a natural place to want to close the book and rest (or sleep); if you end with a major hook, they just can't stop themselves from reading on to find the resolution. And then sometimes you have them for the next chapter. :) I LOVE cliffhanger chapter endings, and many, many of my chapters end this way.

However, sometimes you just have to go for the second type of chapter ending: the quiet resolution. These resolve the main question at hand, perhaps even end with the main character at rest, or going to sleep. No major tension is introduced until the beginning of the next chapter. I think these are needed as well, in a balance, or it WILL be like Dan Brown; the reader may feel like they're running a race, and you never give them a chance to break. When you occasionally end with a quiet resolution, you give the reader a nice wrapped-up feeling, an aaaahhh. Then they're ready to read on. The trick as always is to balance the cliffhangers with the resolutions, so you keep the tension moving, and keep up a good flow.

There, that's probably all I know on the subject at the moment. Your thoughts?

Medieval Word of the Day: contumacy: Perverse and obstinate resistance of or disobedience to authority; rebellious stubbornness. (ooooh, I like that one)


Anonymous said...

Hello Susan:

A few things I thought you could add to your list...

When a novel has multiple POVs another way to build tension (in the very short term) is to switch between them at narrow intervals. Dean Koontz is one author I can think of who does this well. Obviously, you have to use that sparingly, but it's very effective when used properly.

Character development is also important to tension. A really good bad guy will keep readers more invested than a lukewarm one, as will an unpredictable MC.

~ Cindy

Susan Adrian said...


Multiple POVs! Good point. I may even be able to exploit that one in Book 2.

And you're right on character development well. It all has to be intertwined, really, doesn't it?