Tension fix: Cut to the chase

This entry is part 15 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

One of the ways that I’ve found to increase tension as I’ve read a bunch of craft books and reread my WIP is to pull readers into scenes and create tension quickly.

Our scene openings are really key in establishing tension early on. Many times, however, we spend the beginning of the scene “warming up”—rehashing the last scene or sequel, running through mundane events, working up to a conflict (or even to a scene goal). Even after I’d edited specifically focused on making scene goals clear, I still found many scenes meandering near the beginning, wandering around until we found a conflict.

The first step is to make our POV character’s scene goal clear. Often, that will be stated explicitly: she’s waiting for her mystery date or he headed into the office to check on the Q4 numbers. (Thrilling—though I actually do know someone shopping an MG financial thriller, so maybe it could work.) Sometimes it’ll be pretty darn clear from the way we ended the previous scene: the couple just had a fight, and now he’s at a florist.

If the character’s goal or purpose isn’t early in the scene, we can risk losing our readers. And if we don’t get those characters to work on those scene goals, we can risk losing our readers. And if those characters don’t do something interesting—find a source of tension—pretty quick, we can risk losing our readers. (They’re just fickle like that.)

I’ve said before that conflict is at the heart of tension—just as conflict is at the heart of any fully-imagined scene.

Once we’ve established the character’s goal, explicitly or implicitly, we should bring on the conflict. Maybe he’s headed to the florist but—the elevator’s broken—the stairs are being painted. He twists his ankle getting down from the fire escape—the nearest florist is closed—he can’t get a cab—he gets hit by the bus he’s trying to catch. Notice that the conflict doesn’t have to start huge—he doesn’t have to jump straight to the disaster.

It doesn’t even have to be big—maybe the florist doesn’t carry her favorite kind of flowers, or after he pays, he remembers she’s allergic. But don’t just leave him in there, pondering over whether to get daffodils or dianthus.

Along with this, we can look at the whole scene to see what we can tighten. Eliminate unnecessary or redundant words and use powerful, fast-paced language instead. Check out this tightening checklist at the Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood for help.

What do you think? Is there a time when we need long sections of thought between the goal and the conflict?

Photo by Matthias Rhomberg

Series NavigationMake sure parallels pack a punch for suspenseTension fix: Start with a bang

2 thoughts on “Tension fix: Cut to the chase”

  1. I don’t get the relevance of the picture but it does look a little steampunky 😉

    So many times my characters don’t have a scene goal…they just “experience life”. This is something I’m working on. I’ve become a big fan of “mission statements” at the beginning of scenes. Doesn’t have to be that formal, but let the reader know what the stakes are.

  2. LOL, how can it be steampunky if the sky is still blue? 😉 I think it’s some sort of tension-ratchety thing.

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