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Tension—
It's Not Just for Thrillers!

2010 Anna Furtado


When was the last time you stayed up too late reading a novel? When you did, I'm sure reading about a character's breakfast routine, how they got dressed, or whatever other routine things happened in their day wasn't what kept you turning pages. I'll bet it was scenes full of tension that kept you turning page after page, not tedious routine. Without tension, the story would be boring. However, all the mundane meanderings can be filled with tension if they are couched in the fascinating aspects of your story. For instance, what it is that your character worries about?

What if, instead of the ho-hum description of taking a box of cereal out of the cupboard and pouring milk on the contents, an underlying current of tension from some external force permeated the scene? What if she suspects her partner of unfaithfulness? What if she is trying to decide whether or not to confront her? What if the breakfast now becomes the means by which she fortifies herself for that confrontation? One boring breakfast now turns into a tension-filled scene.
Josie watched the white stream of milk slip from the container and splash onto the little o's in the bowl. Reality slapped Josie in the face. Millicent was a cheater. After all, she cheated on her last girlfriend with Josie. She should never have fallen for her line. What was it? Oh, yeah. "She doesn't understand me." And "It's really over between us. We just live together for convenience." What was she thinking? Anger welled up. Now she'd have to confront Millicent. "Damn her for putting me in this position." She held the bowl in her right hand, ready to dig in, but she stopped when Millicent appeared in the doorway. Without thinking, she raised the bowl to her shoulder. Like an Olympic shot-put thrower, she hurled the bowl across the room. It clipped Millicent's ear on the way by her.
Wow, now that's an interesting breakfast! Not your normal put the cereal in the bowl, pour the milk, put the milk away in the refrigerator scene, is it?

How about a woman who is getting dressed? She goes to the closet and pulls out a blouse. She puts her arm in the sleeve. She finds the other armhole and shrugs the blouse onto her shoulders. Ho-hum. But what if she's just gotten a phone call that her partner has been in an accident and is in the hospital? She's been summoned, but the person on the other end of the line refused to give her any details. Now she's trying to get dressed as fast as she can, but the once mundane activity is fraught with hurdles and pitfalls because of what she's experiencing emotionally.
It took three tries for Mary to get her arm through the shirtsleeve. When she tried to button the buttons, her fingers wouldn't cooperate. Tears welled up as she tried to push the button through the hole. Her hands shook uncontrollably. She took a deep breath and tried again. She had to get to the hospital to find out how Sandy was. What would she do if she lost the love of her life?
Frustration and concern surround the act of dressing in the passage above. Use tension as a tool that propels the reader along with the character through the plot. Think of tension as something that belongs in every genre, not just thrillers. Your goal is to keep the reader turning page after page.

Don't let those breaks between scenes and the starts of new chapters give your readers an excuse to stop, set the book down, turn off the light, or get up and go do something else. Instead, make your readers say, "Just one more page." By building tension into scenes and stories, the reader won't be willing to put that book down just yet; she's too anxious to find out what happens next.

Let's go back to our first example. If the bowl-flinging is the end of a scene, chances are pretty good the reader will want to plunge ahead to the next chapter. After having a projectile of wet, milky cereal flung at her head, what will Millicent do? Do the women run into each other's arms and kiss and make up, culminating in a passionate love scene? Or does Millicent walk up to her girlfriend and threaten to strangle her? Does Josie throw Millicent out into the street, locking the door behind her? Or does Millicent calmly walk to the phone and call the police to report an attack? With so much potential from within this tension—so many questions—the reader is sure to want to keep reading.

Now consider the second example. If the chapter or scene ends with Mary, finally dressed, leaving for the hospital not knowing what she will find, the reader will want to read on. Will she arrive at the hospital to find her partner has only a slight bump on the head? Perhaps she needs no more than a stitch or two and a ride home, leaving Mary relieved. Or does Mary find her partner in surgery, her life hanging by a thread, creating even more tension?

Granted, any good writing coach will tell you that it's about the ebb and flow of tension, not just the pressure from constantly cranked-up stress. Give the reader a break now and then. In other words, let the unfaithful companion convince her lover that it was all a terrible misunderstanding. In the second example, if Mary does discover that her lover has only been minimally hurt, we'll have a little breather. However, this respite should be the beginning, not the end of a scene or chapter. And don't allow the reader to be complacent for too long. Once she breathes a sigh of relief, it's time to ratchet up the tension again because we don't want to give her an excuse to put that book down.

In our first example, we might jump to later that day. Josie, feeling relieved that she was mistaken about her partner's unfaithfulness, finds Millicent in the grocery store, feeling up more than the tomatoes in the vegetable aisle. Or—before Sandy and Mary leave the emergency room—Sandy tells Mary that she didn't merely swerve to avoid hitting a possum. Rather, a big, black Lexus ran her off the road, and it might have something to do with the underhanded goings-on at work. If the scene ends there, chances are the reader will want to continue on.

Keep that grip of tension going, only loosening it for a short time. Then tighten it up again. Examine every scene with a critical eye. Determine if some sort of tension that will make the scene more interesting can surround the ordinary activities into which you've set your characters. Leave the reader wanting more at the end of every page.

While examining your scenes, figure out whether the presence or absence of minute detail helps or hinders the scene. The woman who needs to get to the hospital moves as if her brain cannot command her muscles to move. She tries to dress, but her fingers cannot negotiate the buttons. She can't find two matching shoes, no matter how hard she tries. She can't remember where she left her car keys. These tiny details stretch out the scene and help slow time, increasing tension. We, on the other hand, will want her out of the house and at the hospital so we can find out if her partner is dead or alive! This tension will keep the reader turning pages.

How about this for a chapter ending:
Mary breathed a sigh of relief and hugged Sandy. "I'm so glad you're okay."
"I'm fine," Sandy said.
But something in her voice told Mary it wasn't true. She held her partner at arm's length. "Want to tell me what else is wrong?"
Sandy hesitated. "Well, a black Lexus has been following me. I didn't want to tell you about it because you'd only worry."
Mary's brow furrowed. "Yes, I would. Why would someone follow you?"
Sandy began the story that would reveal her troubles at work—troubles that would now touch their lives in ways Sandy could not have imagined when she said yes to her boss's idea to make them both rich.
That should make the reader sit up and take notice. "Quick, turn the page. Whatever has this woman gotten into? I want to know." Isn't that what you'd be thinking if you read a passage that ended like that? I would.

Up until now, the topic has been "bad" tension. There is "good" tension as well. Will the girl be able to win the object of her affection? End the chapter or scene in a way that we aren't sure if two romantic interests are finally getting together or not. We'll turn the page to see what happens when they break away from that first kiss, or turn out the lights, or close the door behind them.

Work on making every scene, every chapter, something that will make the reader say, "What will happen next?" Then she will say, "Just one more scene (or just one more page or just one more chapter)." This will soon be followed by, "What an incredible writer!" Music to any author's ears.
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Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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