I’m feeling tense!

Posted on 10/20/2009


Do you like feeling tense? Do you like tension when dealing with others? The answer is probably a resounding, “no!”

Yeah, I don’t like it.  But when writing prose you need tension in your story. Not just overall tension, but tension everywhere. Donald Maass, when I was attending his High Tension Workshop talked about “Micro-Tension”–literally tension on every page, in every paragraph, practically in every sentence.  Don gives great examples and actually picked up many people’s sluggish writing off the floor and made it a work of art.  He used to write novels, so he knows how to do it and from what I saw at the workshop, he should probably still be doing it!  He’s got a knack for drudging up the emotion in each scene and intensifying it to breathlessness.  It was truly spectacular to watch him ressurect sucky writing. Whichever writer he was working on, would be scratching down on paper, trying to capture what he said, as he was saying it. (He would go it on the fly, which was so SWEET!)  Go to this workshop if you can. Just google High Tension Workshop.

So Don gave us a handout from Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore  Of simply great ideas for adding tension to every scene. I have received permission from Ms. Lyon to post some of them here. They are just one or two sentences of things to add to scenes to PUNCH UP THE TENSION.   These are just some of the items from her list. There are more. I chose a few juicy ones. If you want more, go get her book!

• Turn the scene goal into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma.

• Increase the number and difficulty of obstacles in a scene.

• Hamstring your protagonist with a temporary injury.

• Take away a source of your protagonist’s power or skill.

• Give the antagonist a secret weapon that the reader knows about.

• Give readers (and the antagonist) knowledge that the protagonist doesn’t have.

• Plant an emotional time bomb early in the story—an object of emotional meaning to the protagonist or victim, and light the fuse by presenting it in some form (found, destroyed, given away) late in the story.

• Start some of the scenes at a later point of difficulty—for example, revise to begin your scene where presently it ends.

• End a scene with a decision that is not revealed to the reader. • When a scene protagonist is about to reach a goal and resolve a conflict, add a complication that makes him or her fail instead of succeed.

• Create times of misunderstanding and mistaken communication between the point-of-view characters and other characters.

• Take away options that were formerly there.

• Close escape routes.

• Replace goals with smaller stakes with ones of larger stakes.

• Bring in a new character (not point of view), event, or problem that is foreshadowed, not contrived, but makes new headaches.

•Kill the protagonist’s mentor.

• Assign a number between one and five, one being the lowest level of suspense and five being the highest level of suspense. Give each of your scenes a rating. Decide if you have enough scenes of higher suspense

Don said something in the workshop which really hit home with me: If there’s enough tension for you in the book, add more. There might be enough tension for you, but it will barely be enough for your reader.  True enough, Don.  Always remember, raise the stakes! Add tension! Add some more! Chase your character up a tree and start throwing rocks at him!

Man, I’m feeling a little tense here.


Posted in: Writing