Nanowrimo ’10 Day 8: The tension builds

I don’t know about you, but any time I’m writing a scene with a lot of tension, I type faster. Words fly onto the screen because I’m really invested in what happens next. And this means that the reader will be too.

Donald Maas of the Maas Agency and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL says that stories should have tension on every page. Your character always needs to be striving for something. That goal needs to be consistently out of their reach, or questionable as to whether they’ll be able to achieve it. This adds interest to your story. But how to accomplish tension is something of a head-scratcher for many newbies. And that brings us to pacing.

I like to describe pacing in terms of musical beats. How many beats does it take for your character to turn around after she sees the bad guy coming? How many beats does it take her to start running, for her breath to become ragged, to turn back and see that he’s chasing her, for her heart to beat faster and louder in her ears, to stumble over that dead branch, regain her footing, reach the gate, and then for his fingers to narrowly miss her as she shuts the gate in his face?

That’s pacing. Describing all of the things that happens before she narrowly escapes, adds tension. I could have just as easily written, Gabby saw Mikel in the distance. She began to run. He started to chase her. But she made it to the gate on time, and he just missed catching her. But that’s not as interesting as taking the time to draw out the tension by describing every single thing that happens between the moment she sees him and the moment his hands reach out.

To have effective tension, you have to have effective pacing.

Readers come for the tension, so give it to them. It’ll make your story better and your writing faster. It’s a win-win.

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6 thoughts on “Nanowrimo ’10 Day 8: The tension builds

  1. Catana says:

    Tension on every page? I call that pure BS. Even in a suspense novel, there needs to be time to rest, even for the reader. Drama is created by the alternation of tension and relaxation. If you try to maintain tension constantly, the only way you can do it and have it become boring is to keep upping it, and I doubt that any novel could sustain that. Tension needs to be appropriate and if you insert it where it doesn’t belong, you’re going to ruin a lot of scenes, and maybe the whole novel.

  2. amanda says:

    In regard to Catana’s response — I think if you look at the word “tension” by this definition; “the feeling of uncertainty and interest about the outcome of certain actions an audience perceives,” then, yes, you should have that element on every page. When that is gone, the story must (or should be) over. It doesn’t always have to be a dramatic scene, but simply one that moves the story, or a reader’s understanding of the story, forward.

  3. Catana says:

    I’d agree with that definition, but I have a feeling that’s not what the agent meant. A lot of advice from agents is predicated on what it supposedly takes to make a best-seller, or to fit well within a specific genre. And much of that advice is overly-simplistic and restrictive, especially for new writers who are trying to get their writing feet under them.

  4. Tracey says:

    Catana, you’re right about the over-simplifying and after re-reading the post it seems I’ve done the same. Tension doesn’t always have to be turned up to 10, but that is the example I gave. Rather, Amanda’s definition is more what I meant, that the characters should always be striving for something, and that something doesn’t always have to be running for their lives.

    Though the tension doesn’t have to always be huge, it needs to be there to keep the reader invested.

    Thanks for posting! Both of you.

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