One of the most useful techniques writer can stuff under their belt is the ability to control tension and create drama in their story – regardless of whether it is a piece of micro-fiction or the length of Moby Dick (whale or book). The challenges are subtly different – in a novel it’s keeping the tension going sufficiently to entice the reader the less dramatic chapters, whilst in short stories, creating a balance between the peaks and the necessary lulls in a tight space can be a test of skill.
Some apprentice writers have trouble isolating the drama in their work and often miss all the tricks in cranking up tension. They assume that events in a story will come across as dramatic – a mugging, for instance, that’s got to be drama, right? But it is so easy to muffle the tension instead of enhance it. In my children’s novel for 9+ readers, Tough Luck, I had to write a mugging scene. Here is a first draft extract; the ‘freewrite’ I scribbled down while the scene had newly come into my mind…
They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder. I ran into a courtyard, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I realized that I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. There was only one way in - and out.
They stopped abruptly when they saw me, trapped and defeated. They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. I stepped backwards as they moved in slowly. Then I realized I was doing what they wanted, I was backing into a wall. There'd be a moment when I could go no further, when they might pounce.
I gave it one last shot. I sprang forwards, taking them by surprise, head down, holding my skates in front of me like weapons, hurling myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, then one of them leapt at me, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands as the wet, glinting cobbles came up to meet me, but my nose and chin seemed to take most of the impact. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.
They were surrounding me. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulling my knees and folding my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The very last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head…
As muggings go, this one is pretty mundane at the moment, but there is so much I can now do to heighten the tension and turn this into an extreme dramatic experience for character and reader alike.
Control your Reader
Some stories prefer to jog along at a steady pace until ‘bang!’ the tension is loosed like a cannon shot – often towards the end. Other stories build up tension slowly and steadily from the beginning, like tightening the elastic band on one of those little plastic aeroplanes. To help you understand how your drama functions, think about the affect you want to have on your reader. In fact focus right in on your reader’s stomach. When we read edgy, dramatic pages, our stomach knots up alongside the characters’. At first it might just be a butterfly flutter of worry. But as the tension takes hold, we begin to grip the cover tight and pant with anxiety. The writer achieves this affect by controlling what happens in the reader’s mind (and in his steadily knotting stomach) moment by moment within the narrative.
Once you have a first draft – at least in your own head or scribbled onto a plot outline –looking at how the way you tell the story will directly affect the knots in the reader’s stomach. This might mean presenting the ‘threat/mystery’ earlier in the story. Equally, it might mean holding off on the true mystery, while mini ‘subplot’ threats are seeded in.
The excerpt above is an early scene in the book – it sets the plot moving. So it should present an ‘explosion’ near the beginning that can set the blood racing and encourage the reader to then move through the next chapters - ones that burn slowly in comparison. I should let that explosion really rip. I might need to re-jig the sequence of events a bit and I should be careful not to race through it. I need to let the character (Brandon) tell his story at his own pace.
Get inside a head
Scenes should be described from inside the mind of the character most affected by any rise in tension and drama. If this isn’t possible – because your 1st person protagonist is watching the event, for instance – you must be sure that they are intensely affected by what they see – that they are able to empathize with the affected person. (Unless, of course, what you want to demonstrate is that your protagonist isn’t good at empathy, or doesn’t consider this a drama at all. If that is the case, the scene won’t be represented to the reader as drama – so be sure this is what you intended.)
Show, don’t tell will kick-start the process. Allow the character to register any physical reactions to the growth of tension inside him…my fists tightened…my heart was thumping against my ribs…my breath was coming in short, painful rasps…
Take all the time you need to make sure the reader is absolutely ‘there’ with the character(s). Don’t race through the action, or fail to report a single word spoken. Stop and use descriptive affects, ‘teasing’ your reader as unbearably as you can. Use strong verbs wherever possible to build tension. Avoid too many adjectives, but don’t avoid description…My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms…My heart was thumping against my ribs but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang as my breath came in short painful rasps
‘Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice to almost all my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In the excerpt, I pummel along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Brandon would be doing that, after all. I can’t stop the action – it is full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while not actually stopping it. The simplest is to move into a short internal monologue. This is a renowned way of putting on the brakes at tense moments (some writers take terrible advantage of this, holding off their readers for pages, but that’s quite a risk). I must take as much time as I dare to express Brandon’s thoughts as he confronts the gang …They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. I remember thinking, they're not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up back walls…
You can see that I’m slowing the action down…writing into the gaps I left in my rush to get the words onto the page. Doing this increases tension. You wouldn’t think that would be so, but it is. The reader longs to be teased. They want to know the end of the story, the solution to the mystery, but when they reach the end they’re saddened. They wanted it to go on for ever. Otherwise Spielberg could have just spliced the first and last scenes in Jaws together and save everyone a whole evening’s viewing, or Bronte could have inscribed …reader, I married him…on the first page of Jane Eyre.
Make it Hard
Slowing down and holding back action works well to tighten the knots in the reader’s stomach. An equally good way is to make the action as difficult as possible. Make achieving a goal, even a small one, as hard as you convincingly can. Let terrible events draw out for as long as you dare, too…A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. I felt a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood…
Atmosphere and Mood
These often ‘grab’ a reader and draw them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:
• Atmosphere intrigues, excites, disturbs, beguiles…in other words it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi. It is often created from the setting…PJ James is good at this…or the dialogue…consider Raymond Chandler…or character description…think Dickens. To create atmosphere, let the ‘surroundings’ of each scene speak to the reader…. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard. Suddenly a security light flashed on, like we were on stage, caught in the spotlight.
• Mood is subtly different from atmosphere. It works like a perfume, subtly sensed as it further lifts the pace and atmosphere. It is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator... They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the security light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm…..
The mood affects the pace, and the opposite can also be true. Atmosphere can match, shadow or underline the character’s moods. The Pathetic Fallacy can aid this, from time to time, using landscape, place/objects, climate/weather, events, etc. Truly absorbing, readable stories have braided all the effects in perfect measure.
Light and Shade…Adding Pace
It’s good for ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing. We do this even when talking, changing the tone, speed and timbre of our voice for effect. Pace…the ‘speed of the read’…is the best way to vary light with shade, and useful at encouraging dramatic tension to fluctuate in a narrative.
Pace should change regularly within a piece of writing. Of course, it’s fine to have a ‘favourite pace’ that you’ll use for the majority of the time. Particular paces attract particular readers. For instance, someone who loves the pace of a Virginia Wolfe novel, probably won’t like the pace of a Grisham, and vice versa. Pace can crawl, crush, accelerate, thrust or hurtle. We usually expect pace to be created from the action, but dialogue and even inner monologue can have pace, too. It’s used to advance the action, but can be cleverly used to delay the action – the ‘build-up’, which is often the place where the most tension lies. The pace you take your narrative at will depend on your readership, but don’t miss out on increasing the tension by varying pace at the important moments.
There are various technical ways to engender pace and so control the tension that arises, including some quite small, but important adjustments:
1a. To slow pace, use the present participle frequently.
1b. To speed it up, take them out (look for ‘ing’ endings)
2a. To slow pace, use longer words, longer speeches, words with a a smoother feel, longer sentences and longer paragraphs.
2b. To speed it up, use short, staccato words, lots of full stops and short paragraphs, snappy dialogue. Alliteration works well. Find a rhythm within the abruptness.
3a. To slow pace, use a little of the perfect tense (he had seen her) within the simple past. The passive form, although generally unwise, will slow pace. Abstract words slow pace because the reader has to ‘interpret’ them. Avoid unnecessary words such as seemed, then, also, quite, very, however, might.
3b. To speed it up, use the present tense, if possible within the context, and avoid the perfect tense, the passive form and abstract words.
4a. Look at presentation of images. To slow, give them a dreamy mood. Use all the techniques in ‘slowing down’, above.
4b. To speed up make images clear and precise, sharp sights & sounds. Don’t over describe, but metaphors and symbols can work as ‘shorthand description – sneak description into the action. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Avoid clichés, too!
In places, I need to speed my pace up. Here are the ways I utilized the ‘B’s above:
1. They howled into the courtyard…I hurled myself between two of them…
2. One last shot. I sprang forwards. My head was down. My skates were like weapons…
3. I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was against it, I was trapped.
4. The gang surrounded me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones.
Once you have your reader’s stomach wound into a knot, it’s difficult to keep that buzz of attention when you know you need to drop the pace again. Try creating a break where the reader can take a breath – ending a scene or chapter on a ‘high’ is an accepted and common method of curtailing high tension moments. Just don’t do this until you’ve extracted every gram of possible stomach-knotting!
Flashbacks work very well at this point in a story, because they put everything completely on ‘hold’ and the reader understands that mechanism (that ‘trick’) and goes with it, taking the ‘mystery’ forward with them in the hope it will later be solved.
Interior monologue has a similar affect. Allow your character to ponder the dramatic moments or allow him to cogitate on a separate but vital issue.
Often, the moment is so dramatic that it needs to be resolved at once. I can’t leave Brandon lying helpless on the ground. Not in chapter three. I need to find a way of saving him so that he can live to tell us the rest of his story.
I’m a bit happier with this section now. It’s tighter and faster, but has variations in pace. I think I feel confident to show you the outcome…
They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. They were not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them with twists and turns. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard as the gang from the ice rink howled in and stopped abruptly.
I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was up against it, I was trapped.
They would pounce.
My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms. My heart was thumping against my ribs and my breath came in short painful rasps, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang..
I thought about scooting round them. No chance. They spread out across the courtyard, like they were playing rugby. Suddenly a security light flashed and we were on stage, caught in the spotlight. They didn’t care. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the beam of light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm.
They were well spread out. I could get between them. I sprang forwards, head down. My skates were like weapons. I hurled myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, hang on, lose it as I kept running. For a wonderful second, I was free.
One of them leapt at me from behind, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands. The cobbles came up to meet me. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.
The gang was all round me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulled my knees up as high and folded my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. There was a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood. Least, that's what I thought the redness was. Then I heard the sound of an engine through the fuzz. Smelt the exhaust. A car was rolling into the courtyard.
Okay, you can unknot your stomach now…