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Friday, May 16, 2014

Tension on Every Page

by Cynthia Light Brown

Do you have it? Tension that is. Every page, even every paragraph--or at least nearly every paragraph, needs to have it.

Tension doesn't have to be a fight scene. It could be the tension of humor, or an encounter with someone your mc is interested in.

Go to a random page and ask yourself: is there something on this page that makes the reader want to read the next page to find out what happens?

Now, even harder: Go to a random paragraph and ask yourself: Is there something in this paragraph that makes the reader want to read the next paragraph to find out what happens?
When the answer is no, then cut that page/paragraph/scene. Period.

Two of my favorite books for writers address heightening tension:

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK by Donald Maass. I have to admit that before reading it I thought this book might be simply high-gloss advice on how to write a plot-driven thriller. You could certainly use it for that, but I found it to be surprisingly useful for all kinds of books, and I have come back to it many times. (Note: I have both the book and the workbook, and find the workbook the most useful.)

Mr. Maass devotes three sections to keeping the tension high. Here's one piece of advice:
Delete scenes that are set in kitchens, or driving from one place to another, or taking showers, or eating, especially in the first 50 pages. None of us want to cut these scenes, but they are almost always - at least in first drafts - scenes with low tension. These scenes often review what has already happened, they pause, they deaden. They might show character, but they don't have us worried, they don't raise questions, and most importantly, they don't make us turn the page.

Cut those scenes. 


If you like, you can paste them in another file so that if you REALLY need the scene you can bring it back, trimmed down and with added tension, and maybe later in the book. But consider if there's a setting that is naturally more conducive to higher tension; instead of  sipping coffee, can your characters discuss the situation while doing something compelling?

I have a scene like that on page 11. Ouch. It reveals character, and it's short - less than a page, so I thought it was okay. It's not, and I'm cutting it. I have already revealed this aspect of the character's personality, so it's not essential in that sense, which leads me to the next book about writing...

SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King  is an excellent resource for line editing in particular (though it's great for big-picture things as well). In keeping up tension, one area they discuss is more subtle:

Unintentional repetition. This is where you repeat the effect. It might be two sentences that show the same information, or two paragraphs that show the same character's personality trait, even if they do it in different ways. It can be hard to spot, even for seasoned writers, so put your manuscript aside then focus on looking for this repetition of effect. And of course, ask other beta readers to look for it as well. One place it crops up in is interior monologue. There could be occasions when your intention is to show your mc anxiously repeating thoughts, but most often that's not the case. The interior monologue might be realistic, but it might also be repetitive and therefore tedious.

Browne and King have some excellent examples. An unlike some books, they don't use obvious examples; they show examples of good writing that can be made even better. When I read their "before" examples, I don't always see the repetition, but I see how it was eliminated in their "after" examples.

When in doubt, cut it out!


  1. Great advice. I think I'll go check out a few of my recently created scenes to see if any of the advice applies.

  2. I hope it's helpful Dave. I thought my stuff was there, but when I really dig in to look for that nearly constant tension, I see all sorts of places where I need to trim, trim, trim, and then add in more of the "good stuff." I'm using the approach I use for getting rid of junk in my house that I'm reluctant to get rid of: put it in a box in the basement and see if I miss it after a month. So I'm cutting out paragraphs, pages, scenes, putting in another doc and see if I miss it. Sometimes I do need to add some of it back in, but usually trimmed down.