Monday, February 28, 2011


Bobbye Terry is back with a great post on how to increase the tension in your writing. Like this post? Leave a comment when you finish reading.

You know what’s it like. You’re reading a book on the edge of your seat. No bathroom break, no sir and you hope you don’t have to call for a catheter. Whatever happens, people better get ready to take care of it, because no way are you leaving this story. The tension in your shoulders is so tight, you can feel your muscles throb. Yet you turn the pages. Oh, my word, what will happen? How can the hero escape? How can he stay alive? Tension like that, my friends, is what you want to read. And it is, most assuredly, what you want to write. But how?

For me, it’s all in knowing how to crank it up. Here is a list to help:

The Law of Three
I find this very useful when writing suspense. To me, it means two separate things.
First, when writing a suspense or thriller (or any fiction, really) raise the stakes three times. You take a bad situation and make it worse. Then, just when you think how much worse could it be, kick it up one more notch.
 But it can’t happen all at the same time. That’s where pacing comes into play (stay tuned).

For example(from Coming to Climax, releasing September 5th):
 Margaret is going back to Climax for the first time in twenty-plus years to resolve her argument with her niece. She doesn’t know how she’ll ever face Blue, who married her sister on the rebound all those years ago. Margaret worries and frets, even orders three little bottles of Scotch on the plane. Can she pull it off and save face (the stakes)? Their meeting will be tense. But what if…you then find out Blue’s adopted daughter is really Margaret’s child? Will Blue forgive her and will she alienate Caroline forever? The stakes are raised again. But what if…the crimes in the town have something to do with those she loves and may lead to her death, or worse, Blue and Carolina getting killed? The stakes are raised again. Now you’re ready to feed in the tension by hitting the hot buttons, her stakes. Each time, the tension escalates.

Now thanks to Margie Lawson, think of the repetition of three items. By repeating words or phrases in a work, it brings emphasis or punch to the segment. That will be demonstrated at the end of this article.

Pacing and Sentence Structure
Don’t use long flowery sentences when in the middle of a tense scene. Think in shorthand and see the scene through the eyes of the person who has the POV. You’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting in snippets of sensation. Actions are choppy and hurried.

Reappearing Images, Phrases and Sentences 
 One technique that pulls your book together and gives you a gotcha moment is to introduce something early in the text and then repeat it later with a twist. This could be a scene in a calm location, such as a thinking place or the security of one’s home. Later the same scene is colored with the ominous presence of the villain who seeks to kill the hero. Like Chef Emeril says, “kick it up a notch.” Similarly you can use a phrase or object that was used in an early violent or tense-filled scene and reintroduce it much later in another such scene, but this time involving a main character or the hero himself. For instance, in Nick of Time, the sequel to Coming to Climax, the book opens with two evil characters trapping a woman in a net they set up to capture her deep in the forest. One of the characters says. “Easier than trapping the Easter bunny.” Much later in the book, a prominent secondary character is trying to get away, and is also caught in a net. The same evil character says. ““Easy trapping, but you ain’t no Easter Bunny.” See? Gotcha’!

Atmosphere and Setting
I talked about this earlier when I explained about the calm scene becoming the violent one later. That’s setting. Use everything, the weather, the lighting, the location. For instance, my really threatening scenes in the Climax books normally take place in the deep forest with low lighting and obstacles to running, in abandoned buildings, even around a graveyard. Take time to describe the scenery. Paint a word picture so the reader can feel the dark mood and the somber tone.

Now, see if you can spot some of my techniques in this snippet (now unedited) from Nick of Time, coming in January 2012
The guy vaulted at him, grabbing his shirt. Luke jerked loose, the fabric ripping. He lunged for the door. The man’s hands, talons, grabbed his shirt. Exerting unearthed power, Luke wrenched free and ran.
Ran from the trailer, primed for evasion. Ran down the path, terrified of capture. Ran like the hunted, straining to survive.
He darted into the woods, his breath coming in ragged gulps, his mind racing like an over-wound toy. The shadowed forest of a slowly setting sun dotted his view with dark patches of hopelessness. Run for escape. Run to the dark. The man won’t see me there.
Hiding behind a dense thatch of trees, he heard nothing. Maybe I lost him. He stayed silent, trying to calm his heaving chest. Maybe he left. His heart whammed against his ribcage, pounding anger at his foolishness. Where did he come from? His mind slapped him, laughing at his ignorance. He should have known.

I hope my insights will help someone on their quest to writing success.

Can you spot Bobbye's techniques? If so leave a comment with your answer. What are some things  you do to crank up the tension?

Bobbye Terry
 Bobbye Terry. BE MINE, VALENTINE, Turquoise Morning Press (TMP)
w/a Terry Campbell:CRAIGS' LEGACY, 2/11/2011, Black Opal Books; Backlist on Kindle
w/a Daryn Cross, IT'S MAGIC, Crescent
                                                   Enjoy the book trailer:



Donnell said...

A timely post and great reminder, Bobbye. In your excerpt I suspect you up the tension by using strong action verbs, shortened sentences and fear-filled bodily functions and actions. This post is great. One of the best pieces of writing advice I got about tension is "Stay in the Phone Booth with the Gorilla." In other words don't lessen the tension with backstory or filler. It should be immediate, pressing -- exactly what you say -- you can 't help but turn the page. Well done!

Bobbye Terry said...

Thanks for the post and loved the phone booth phrase!

Bailish said...

With all the writing blogs concentrating on the business of promoting one's work through social networking, it's great to see a writing blog discussing the real business of writing.

Thanks for the post!

Ruby said...

Great post Bobbye.
Swain says, "So what's behind suspense? Fear." I think the same goes for tension. What's behind tension is fear. Fear that you won't find that "special someone" or that you'll be rejected. Or maybe if you're in a dangerous situation that you won't get out alive. Being able to show it in my writing is the difficult thing.

Romancing the Blog said...

Thnaks to Bailish and Ruby. Ruby, fear is always a motivator. What you need to do is think of what the character's fear meter will register. Some people can take more than others before reacting in an uncertain way. There are others who react approriately for survival and crumble afterwards. You need to show fear as your character would demonstrate it.


Kimberly Walton said...

Thank you, Bobbye for the post. One thing I'm working on with my heroine is both real and imagined fear. It seems the imagined fear hits her really hard.

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