Writing is mostly about revising. If you haven’t spent much time in revisions, it can be daunting. (Well, that’s true even if you HAVE spent lots of time on revisions.) It helps to have some strategies for revising.
When I was at the SCBWI International conference in LA in August, I attended a session by Donna Jo Napoli about creating tension in a novel. Tension is, after all, what keeps readers interested, excited, on the edge of our seats. And it’s what’s often missing in early drafts of a manuscript.
Think about the books you really love. I know for me, the ones I love the most get the main character into a situation that I am positive he will never get out of. Often, it’s a life or death situation. I refer you to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. How many times does Frodo get into such a state that we are sure he will die and all will be lost? (A lot.)
Donna Jo asks the question, “How can I make it worse?” That is the key to increasing tension.
Setting has an often overlooked potential to add tension. What if your main character, in addition to all the other problems you’ve created for her, has to evacuate due to a massive fire heading in her direction? That would make it worse, right? Or what if the story takes place in an outpost of the arctic? Or she’s in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language? Or she’s inside a locked car on a hot day?
Another way to intensify the tension is through the characters. We see this quite often in fiction, even in sitcoms on TV. Two or more characters can disagree about something. But what if you make it worse. What if their friendship is on the line because one of them dated the other’s boyfriend? Or one friend stole money from the other to buy drugs? Or it turns out one friend has been lying to the other for years about something important?
Of course, there’s plot. The book I’m reading now, The Limit by Kristen Landon, involves a totally tension packed plot. The main character has to go live in a modern day workhouse because his family went over their spending limit. (It’s a dystopic novel.) He begins to figure out some pretty bad things about this little system. And the reader just wants to keep reading until we too figure out what’s happening. Plus we want him to get out of there, but it’s hard to see how that is going to happen.
Timing is another device Donna Jo recommends to add tension. Is there some sort of deadline the character has to meet? Not that I’m recommending this movie, but I recently saw 30 Minutes or Less, in which the main character is kidnapped and a bomb is strapped to his chest. It is set to go off in nine hours if he doesn’t do what his kidnappers demand. That’s quite a bit of tension.
Timing can also mean the rhythm of the language. To increase the feeling of tension, use short words and short sentences. Use hard sounds rather than soft. For example, instead of “scary” with the soft “s” and the friendly sounding “y” at the end, use “nightmarish” with the harsh “t” and the hard “r”.
Donna Jo says changing directions can also add to tension. An example of changing directions might be a change in point of view, leaving off with one character and focusing on another. Or you might try changing the pacing—our hero is being chased by the bad guy, but he doesn’t know why. He ducks into a safe place, giving himself and the reader a chance to breathe. But we want to know who the bad guy is and why he’s chasing our hero, so we’re eager to get back out there now, even if the hero isn’t. Or maybe literally changing direction: the character takes a wrong turn. That never turns out well.
Donna Jo’s final piece of advice is a commonly heard one, and yet one so rarely taken and learned well. That is to make your reader trust you by SHOWING not TELLING. If the reader trusts you to show what’s happening, she will trust you all the way through. We’ll talk about that next time.