Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tension and Conflict Part 7 - Stretching Tension

You know how a rubber band works. You can pull it very taut so it will snap across a room if you let it go, or you can pull it only to stretch around an item. Tension in fiction is similar. It can be so taut the reader can’t stop reading, or it can be only tight enough to hold the plot together so it doesn’t fall apart. All types of tension are needed. Not every scene should be edge of the seat tension. Some scenes can only leave the reader asking questions or the character struggling with a dilemma.

Learning techniques that add various kinds of tension to your novel will help you keep the stress level high. Here are a few that you can use, and I’m sure you will think of more. If so, please add them to the comments for others to read as well.

Accelerate and Decelerate Details
Think about an old John Wayne Western. The bad guy faces John Wayne. Each stands waiting for the first one to draw his weapon. The camera pans in on John Wayne’s hand posed close to his holster. The camera swings to the bad guy with a closeup of his evil eyes. The camera moves to John Wayne’s boot as it shifts a half inch, then to the muscle in his jaw that is jerking with tension. Back to the bad guy, his fingers twitching.

You get the point. To create tension provide second by second details showing the growing danger or growing action. Two guns snatched from the holster followed by gun shots shows conflict but lacks the power of the tension as the viewer watches the danger build.
This same technique can be used in a family saga as we watch the mourning widow touch her dead husband’s pipe, lift his sweater and buries her nose in it. We feel the emotion. It happens in a romance as we watch the camera move to the hero’s eyes, his fingers twitching to run his hand through the hero’s hair. Though it is more difficult to capture some of the emotion through writing rather than seeing it on the screen, you can bring these emotions to life by delving in the sight images as well as the introspection of the POV character.

Interrupted Action
Use various disruptions to stop a conversation or action. The serial killer hiding behind the drape is drawn back to hide when the light turns on and a group of people enter the room. The hero leans forward planning to kiss the heroine when the telephone or doorbell rings. Two people sharing confidential information halt when a third party enters a room. This kind of interruption can also delay the action totally. The killer slips back out the window, realizing this isn’t the right time to strangle the woman. The hero has lost the moment to kiss the heroine, and the conversation may have to wait for a more opportune time. These delays add to the tension of the reader and the characters.

In the same way interrupted action causes stress, a lesser technique can be used to give the characters time to pause and to even rethink what they are about to do or say. Use car headlights flashing on the wall. Someone might be passing or even pulling into the driveway. A barking dog can be a good distraction. It fuzzes the mind of the person talking or it makes them wonder what’s going on outside. Again could someone be coming. No matter why the dog is barking, it stops the action for a moment and in the process adds a small slice of tension.

When writing novels with multiple POVs, a great tension creating technique is to stop the scene at a place that leaves the reader hanging. The heroine hears the doorbell and opens the door. She grabs her heart and screams. Scene ends. The hero is driving along the highway, a truck swings into his lane, brakes squeal. The hero yells and veers his car to the left. Scene ends.
When you read thrillers and suspense novels, notice how chapters tend to end in this fashion. This is why it’s a thriller. But you can use this in other genres also, by cutting the scene following one character asking another a very pointed question that will make a plot difference. When she asks, have his jaw clamp and blood drain from his face. Scene ends.

Short Scenes or Chapters
In the same way as a cliffhanger, use shorter scenes that leave questions unanswered and then move on to a new scene with another POV character. This pulls the reader along anxious to find out what is happening in the previous scene.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
To add tension to your stories, allow your characters to make mistakes and misjudge situations. A husband sees his wife at lunch with a strange man. He draws the wrong conclusion. In suspense provide clues that lead to dead ends. When a criminal is about to be apprehended, turn the action around. Allow him to get away or to be proven innocent. This kind of tension is excellent in thrillers, mysteries or suspense novels. In all genre, try to develop plot situations that aren’t always perfect. Say no instead of yes. Bring on rain rather than sunshine. Miss the ride to an important appointment. Lose a phone number that is vital to the story’s plot. These conflicts add excitement and tension.

Word Choice and Sentence Structure
Words and sentence length contribute to the overall feel of a novel. Shorter sentences help create tension and thus provides a feel of action to the story’s pace. Longer sentences work in romance, some women’s fiction and literary novels because it provides a more lilting rhythm to the sentences. Keep this in mind when developing more tense scenes.

Word choice is affected by the sounds a word makes. In the English language we have alphabet sounds that are hard and some are softer. The hard sounds are p, t, b, g, k, c, d, q, and s while the softer sounds are found in m, n, l, w, f, h & in vowels. To create tension, use the hard sounds. "Shut up, and keep quiet." He toppled the table to the floor as he trapped the woman in a death grip. In a romance, use the softer sounds. He wrapped his arm around her and eased her to him, mesmerized by her luscious lips longing to be kissed. Notice the use of softer sounds, the m, l and vowels. Keep this technique in mind when creating tension in your novels. It’s one more way to create emotion.

Tension can be stretched in a multitude of ways, and these are only some of the methods. If you have other ideas share them in the comments. I might pull them together and add some of yours to the blog.


Suzette Saxton said...

THANK YOU for sharing your wealth of knowledge! Knowing the nuts and bolts of writing really does make the process easier.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

You're very welcome Suzette. I'm always pleased to help writers learn more about the complex business of writing and the multitude of techniques needed to sell a novel to a tradiitional publsiher.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gail, If you have a lot of action taking place, a fight scene for example, or a chase, obviously shorter sentences create more tension. But what about paragraph length. One-line paragraphs speed things up but could become tiresome over a page while a half-page paragraph will slow things down. What is the best way forward?


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mike - Good question. The one sentence paragraph is effective with a very dramatic line - but multiple single line paragraphs ruin the effect. Short sentences are more effective. Single words or phrases are great but make sure they are also powerful with strong language and vivid word choice. IN a fight scene - gut, wrenched, jammed, crunched, dug, scraped, etc. These words create a mental picture of action.

An occasion short paragraph - even a couple of sentences is good and keeps the eye flowing which adds to the dynamics of the story. The main thing is to avoid a long narrative paragraph.

To get a more vivid idea, pick up one of your favorite thriller novels and glance through it. It's easier to see what works through the "horse's mouth." : )