QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, November 19, 2012

Creating Tension

By Christina Lee @Christina_Lee04

"The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat's mat IS a story." (John le Carré)

I love that quote because it so perfectly explains the necessity of adding tension to a scene.

Tension matters BIG TIME. It helps with pacing and keeps readers interested in your story.

According to Noah Lukeman, who wrote The First Five Pages, pacing is the central nervous system of your book and demands the greatest long term concentration. It requires the writer to retain several hundred pages in their head at once!

So how do you heighten the tension and keep the pace going strong?

1. Make sure your characters have enough at stake. If that other cat lets the first cat sit on his mat, his pride and territory would be in peril!

 You want the reader to blaze through your pages, look forward to picking up the book again, just to find out how your protagonist is going to overcome the conflict you’ve written into your story.

2. Delete scenes that slow the pace. First, the cat stopped for a drink of water from the community bowl located near the kitchen table. He stared at the raindrops pelting against the window. Next, he chatted up the other cats in the house before finally walking over to the other cat’s mat.

If you find an extraneous paragraph that have nothing to do with moving the story forward, or that lets the reader know pertinent background information about the characters, delete it. The reader will naturally want to skip over waking up, yawning, reporting the weather, etc. unless it’s necessary for setting the scene, the mood, the character’s personality or motivation. Even then, keep it brief. 

3. Draw out the dramatization. Build up to a scene. The first cat circled the other cat's space, taking in the softness and durability of his mat. He looked over his shoulder to be sure no other copycats watched. He stepped one paw on the mat and then the other...

This is different than deleting scenes that slow pace. This is where showing versus telling can help you out. Let the reader picture the scene through your descriptions without telling them exactly what’s happening, so it builds anticipation. 

4. End chapters on cliff hangers. Just as he was making himself comfy on his new mat, the first cat heard a drawn-out hiss behind him. His hiney froze in mid air.

This way, your reader will be dying to find out what happens next. This is difficult to do for every single chapter. But as long as the reader’s trying to get to the subsequent scene to see what’s coming, you’re golden.

5. Ask your betas for help. It's hard to self-edit for pacing and tension.

They’ll let you know if you need to delete or add word count to ramp up your story.


Christina Lee is a freelance and YA writer repped by Amy Tipton.  She blogs at www.write-brained.com and creates hand-stamped jewelry at www.tags-n-stones.com



Tricia J. O'Brien said...

That's a great example. It's hard sometimes to know when adding atmosphere and setting is just enough and when it's slowing the story and losing the reader. Beta readers forever.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Hi Christina!
I'm actually reading The First Five Pages right now. That's one of those books I kept hearing about and finally decided to check out for myself. The chapters on Sound and Comparisons are spot on.

Christina Lee said...

Thanks, Tricia and Kim!