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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tension School

Hello and welcome to Tension School. Most of you writers reading this post have an undiagnosed condition that I like to call Tension Deficit Disorder or TDD. This condition frequently occurs with new writers, writers who are struggling to move beyond the basic levels of writership and for some of you it also occurs when you are writing for your own enjoyment rather than the enjoyment of readers. Now, before you get your hackles up, let me explain. New writers do, can and should write in whatever way they best can. I am not here to judge, only to assist those who are willing to reflect on their efforts and work toward improvement. If you already think your writing is perfect, then you don't need me to help you with it. If you are looking at trying to work beyond the basic levels of writing, then you might benefit from reading some of my blogs. I tell it like it is, but most of the time I do it in a kind, thoughtful way, free of judgment. If you are writing for your own enjoyment, or for some kind of personalized therapy there is nothing wrong with that. Granny Kat has done the same thing. I'm just pointing out that along the way you may have developed TDD without realizing it.

Fortunately, Granny Kat has no problem with tension. In fact, she would consider it a dull day indeed if she faced no tension whatsoever. Tension brings out the best and the worst in all of us, and if that is true of real human beings, it should also be true of characters. Now, if you have developed TDD you may experience such symptoms as difficulty plotting your novel-length stories, struggles to write scenes where anything of actual story-worthiness happens, worries about the pacing of your drafts and a general reticence to put your characters into hot water. You created your characters, your darlings, your babies and of course you want them to be happy, fulfilled, loved and successful in their story world lives. That is what all parents want for their children. All well and good, but that recipe makes for rather dull reading. If you truly love your characters you will want them to suffer. But this suffering is not without its merits, because through their suffering they will become better people and when they succeed in their post-suffering world (also known as the end of the story) readers will be delighted.

So, now to the cure for TDD. In a phrase the cure is "ramp up the tension". How do you do that? Try to get some tension on every page. I know, it's tough to do and it's a lot of work. Start with making sure you have tension in every chapter, then when you go back and re-read scenes, see where you can add tension, or revise to bring out the tension that's already there. Here are some ideas for ways to bring out tension. Start with some very broad ideas for your characters and their situation:

Conflict of backgrounds
Conflict in values/ideals
Conflict in long term goals
Conflict in short term goals/quests
Conflict in loyalties

Now work at a narrower level:

- make the goal harder to reach (put up roadblocks, red-tape, new rules, more opposition)
- set a clock ticking (time is running out, something must be done by Monday or else...)
- put a character in jeopardy (threaten the character's job, home, family; threaten his life, threaten to expose the character's personal secrets)
- pose a new question (introduce a plot twist, old girlfriend, twin brother, skeleton in the closet, secret, past he thought he got over, show that this character isn't everything he/she seems)
- keep secrets from the reader (tease the reader by withholding knowledge the character has; tell the reader the character has it, but don't tell the reader what it is)
- foreshadow (hint that something bad is going to happen)

At the very narrowest level you can use tone and mood in your grammar:

Use an authoritative tone to build tension. There's something tense about being under the thumb of an authority figure. It's an automatic reaction to check your speed when a police car is behind you, or close your internet browser when your boss walks by. Any sentence or paragraph that uses an authoritative tone or any character that speaks authoritatively will automatically raise tension. Passive voice sentences work very well with authoritative tone.

Active voice sentences also work.

* Active: Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.
* Passive: This paperwork must be completed by 5pm.

An authoritative tone builds anticipation of action because we wonder what will happen if/when the rules are broken. It's the most basic of moral levels.

Don't miss out on opportunities to build tension in the novel. One place that is overlooked is character meets. You can build tension by preparing the reader ahead of time for the meet. Drop hints that the characters have opposing viewpoints on an issue, and then the reader will want to see what happens when they meet. Have characters be worried about the meeting, or excited about the meeting, and then have the meeting go all wrong for one of the characters. Mention the upcoming meeting a few times in different scenes, if possible. Be sure to follow through and make the meeting scene memorable for the reader. If you've built anticipation and tension for the reader, make sure you don't disappoint the reader by giving them something slap-dash and ordinary. Either give them what they were expecting, or surprise them with an unexpected twist.

There's hope for TDD! You don't have to suffer any longer. Your job is to make your characters suffer, not you! Don't fall into the lull of low tension scenes where all goes well. Put your suffering into your novel and save the joy and happiness for your own life.

See you in print!
Granny Kat


  1. HI Alisa! Thanks for asking (and reminding me, lol!) I fixed it so there is a feed button (and email subscription). The blog is a work in progress, and we're thrilled you want to subscribe. Thanks!

    Granny Jo