Imagine you plunk down $1.50 for the Sunday paper and the headline reads, “Some Stuff Happened But We Didn’t Feel Like Researching it, Check Back Tomorrow.” You’d be upset and probably want your money back. After all if those lazy reporters can’t do their jobs then why should you waste your money?
Yet, there are countless books out there with chapters where nothing really happens. Why should a reader waste their time?
If dramatic tension stays flat chapter after chapter why are those chapters in the book? Exposition? Boring! Look for these tension killers and eliminate them.
Repetitiveness – Writers want to make sure the reader understands what’s happening in the story. Then make sure what you wrote was clear the first time, instead of slowing the pace by repeating yourself.
Rambling Man – Moving characters from one place to another, can slow the pace of a story. If one scene is in the living room and the next dramatic scene is in a grocery store, the reader doesn’t need to follow the character into the garage, out the driveway, past the church at the end of the block, waving to Mrs. Johnson – You see my point here, right? If there isn’t a horrendous collision that sends your character into a coma, ala soap writing 101, somewhere on the way to the store your reader will lose interest. End the scene in the living room, add an extra line and then begin the scene at the store.
A Whole Lot of Thinking Going On — If your character is having a problem with indecision don’t let them sit around thinking. Get their problems out of their head and into dialog. Better yet, add a scene that shows the characters indecision through their action or inaction.
DANGER, DANGER! – Is your character in enough danger from one chapter to the next? Danger can take many different forms. The easiest and most obvious is the physical danger. Don’t forget to use emotional danger. You as the writer have a moral responsibility to torture these characters as much as you can. Pile on the emotional danger along with the physical and see where that leads you. Moriarity he ain’t! — Your antagonist must be as smart or even smarter than your protagonist to create dramatic tension. If your antagonist is as bumbling as the three stooges then your reader won’t be interested enough to keep turning the page.
The next step is a doozy! — Is your protagonist’s goal clear and are they taking a step closer in each chapter? Think of your story as a rollercoaster. Without the slow climb toward the giant hill and killer loops, the ride wouldn’t be as satisfying. Don’t deprive your reader. Notch them up the hill slowly but make sure each chapter is another step up and not a plateau.
Originally published at http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/tension.html August 2007