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Friday, June 16

Whoa, That’s Tense. 3 Ways to Raise the Tension in Your Scenes

creating tension
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The movie Sanctum really knows how to crank up the tension and keep viewers on the edge of their seats, and I admired the way the director kept the tension high all the way to the end. One reason is because it's set in a cave and many of the scenes are underwater. Even though I’ve never been cave diving, I have dived wrecks with confined spaces and I know how dangerous cave diving can be. So many things can go wrong and kill you. There's a lot writers can learn about tension from this movie, but let's look at my three favorite aspects and how you can apply them to your novels.

1. It Creates a Setting Ripe With Hazards 

hooking readers in a sceneCave diving is dangerous. It’s secluded, there’s no easy way out, and if something goes wrong you’re on your own. What better spot to put your protagonist in than a similar "dangerous and on your own" situation?

Look at your scenes, especially the ones that start and end chapters. What kind of environment is your protagonist in? Are they in a place where if something goes wrong they can easily escape or deal with it or will it be harder to solve their problem? This works for emotional settings too, such as if they have to deal with a difficult emotion and don’t want to face it. You might consider:
  • Cutting off their escape routes: If the only possible way to move forward is to go through more danger, you leave your protagonist little choice but to risk it.
  • Narrowing their options: If cutting off their escape routes isn’t feasible, try making one way riskier than the other. They way they want to go won’t work, so they have to go the way they don’t want to.
  • Add potential threats: What aspects about the setting could cause more trouble? Not that they will or need to, but what is possible? Just because you don’t plan on something bad happening doesn’t mean the reader can’t worry that it will. 
(Here's more on how setting can affect tension)

2. It Let the Characters Make Dumb Mistakes

When you ignore the cave diving expert who tells you how to survive the terrible situation you’re in, don’t be surprised when you die. In an unforgiving environment, one mistake can kill you. Try being less forgiving of your protagonist and let them get themselves into trouble. Think about:
  • What don’t they know: Nobody knows everything about a situation, so what if your protagonist doesn’t have all the skills or information needed to get out of trouble? What mistakes might they make that will get them closer to a catastrophe? A physical mistake that affects their plan? An emotional mistake where they act without thinking or in a way contrary to what’s smart? A mental mistake where they misread a situation or vital clue?
  • What might you take away: Taking away one piece of information might make the scene more tense. The noise in the dark is much scarier before we discover it’s just the cat. Is there anything you can change so that the reader fears what’s out there/in there/is going to happen? A little mystery can be a powerful thing.
  • What don’t they want to admit: People keeping secrets or not fessing up can cause all kinds of trouble, and if the reader knows or suspects someone is holding back about something critical, there’s a lot of anticipation about how that will unfold. And again, it’s not something that has to happen, it’s the potential for disaster that makes this tense.
One warning here careful of making characters too dumb. People do make stupid mistakes for believable reasons, but there's a line between "oops" and "too stupid to live" you don't want to cross.

(Here's more on 7 ways characters can screw up their decisions)

3. It Forces Character to Make Impossible Choices 

When something goes wrong in a cave deep underwater, you might have to choose between letting one person die or multiple people dying. Some people can’t be saved no matter how good a person you are or what you try to do. Make the choices your protagonist has to face – or choices she might have to face – horrible so the reader can agonize right along with them. Such as:
  • Choices between people: Not every situation is going to be life or death, but there are plenty of opportunities to choose one person over the other. Make that choice have consequences that add to the problems (potential or real) piling up. Someone becoming more and more upset over a choice could turn into a nasty surprise.
  • Choices between beliefs: Inner conflict is great to play with, so make the most of it. Is there a line your protagonist refuses to cross? Something they swore they’d never do? How close can you push them to that line or that action?
  • Choices that all suck: Being in a situation where there is no right answer, and every choice sucks and ends badly for someone, is tense. If the protagonist is willing to do X, then what might happen later when things get really bad? Maybe they make a hard choice here to avoid crossing a line or doing what they swore they’d never do.
(Here's more on characters making tough choices and why it matters)

While you don’t want to throw trouble at your protagonist just to make trouble, putting them in an environment rife with potential dangers makes everything they do matter more. One mistake, one slip up and disaster could come crashing down on their heads.

Tension is all about what could happen, not what is happening. It’s the anticipation that gets us.

What's your favorite way to raise the tension? What have you seen or read that did it particularly well?

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. "Tension is all about what could happen, not what is happening. It’s the anticipation that gets us."

    Great quote! My best friend is a huge horror fan, and my parents also enjoy horror movies. It's normal to hear them griping about some horror movie that showed the "scary monster" thing, which completely destroyed the apprehension.

  2. I think this is another post I'll have to bookmark for myself. And it gives me a whole new way to examine scenes I'm reading or watching!

  3. I'm really glad I found you blog. Posts like this are both informative and orginal. Thank you very much.

  4. Ah, yes -- I recall a Deb Dixon workshop where she said to give your character choices. But the choice has to be between 'it sucks' and 'it's suckier'.

    Terry's Place

  5. This is a great post! I really enjoyed the way you looked at the setting for tension. So often we think about the conflict between characters for tension--which is good of course--but it's also important to look for tension in other places.

  6. I also love the bit about what could happen! I've been trying outlining, and this is what I'm combating as I go back and revise: I know what's going to happen, so my characters don't always act like all the horrible things that could happen might happen.

  7. Carradee: Thanks! It's the music that gets me in horror movies. Once the bad things happens I'm fine. I've been known to turn the sound off so it doesn't wig me out :)

    Paul: Win/win!

    Michael: Most welcome, and good to have you with us.

    Terry: I totally agree with that :) Impossible choices are one of my favorite things to do to my protag.

    Elizabeth: Tension can come from anywhere, and setting often just sits there. Why not make it work double duty like the rest of the writing?

    Megan: I've run into that while writing scenes myself. I realize that the antags aren't working very hard because the goal is for the protag to get away. And it's like they know that. What worked for me, is to also plot out what the bad guys/opposition is doing to stop your protag and treat it like they really *are* trying to stop them. You don't have to write it, but just thinking about it puts it in a different mindset and lets you figure out tougher more unpredictable problems.

  8. Yet another fantastic post. This also makes me really want to go watch Sanctum.

  9. Shannon: Thanks! It was a cool movie, if scary at times. I really liked how they underplayed it. Made it feel more real and dangerous.

  10. Enjoyed the post - great stuff

  11. Amazing, amazing, amazing post. Did I mention this post is amazing? Thanks for making the various options so clear. I feel like, "Duh! Why didn't I think of that?" But I didn't. It was all you. So thanks for helping me to make my WIP that much stronger!

  12. AJ: Thanks!

    DB: LOL happy to help. So glad it resonated so well with you :)

  13. Another great post that hits something that 'should' be obvious right on the nose! Sometimes the most power things in writing are so simple...

    I love the reminder that anticipation is what pushes us to turn the page, the need to know what might happen, what could happen -- excellent!

    Thank goodness for Fridays :o)

  14. This is amazing. Thank you. :)