With the new book, I wanted to play around with the spy thriller genre, adding a fun layer to my typical fantasy setting. I’m a fan of spy novels, but I’ve never written one before, so I did a little research. On an old post from KathrineROID: Scribbling on the Computer, I found some good tips, and one I especially liked:
If you start a scene with a man hiding in a room, the reader wants to know from whom he is hiding, why they want him, and what his plans are. In that order. So give the answers in the reverse order. The man loads his gun. His plan. He positions himself. In between text. Next the man destroys a piece of paper, thinking he can’t afford it to fall in the wrong hands. Why his enemies want him (and a new question – What was on the paper?). There are noises, and the man prepares himself. In between text. KGB agents walk in. Who he is hiding from. The entire scene can end without the question of what was on the paper being revealed.I’m a fan of building the tension and I try to keep things unpredictable, and for the most part I do follow this advice. But this also made me think about how I fed information to my reader.
This tension and suspense would be completely destroyed if the man curses his enemies at the beginning of the scene, reads the contents before destroying the paper, and is then forced to action when the agents walk in.
For a younger audience it’s good to be very clear about the goals, because younger readers don’t always pick up on the subtleties. A little telling where needed is a necessary evil. But for older readers (YA and adults), stating things outright can steal all the tension from a scene.
I did a little checking in my own work to see if I could edit to heighten the tension by making the goal a little less obvious. (And let me tell you, this so goes against my nature). And you know what? I found stuff.
One scene, I have my protag state very clearly what she needs to do and how she plans to do it. Trouble is, the how part doesn’t show up until pages later. It’s her plan, her ultimate goal for that scene, but not an immediate goal. I trimmed it out, left the how uncertain, and tweaked the scene.
It was so much better.
The old scene was an escape. My protag needed to get out, and she states how she plans to do that. The new scene, she says she has to get out, then I show her trying to get out without explaining how she’s going to do it. The reader can wonder how she plans to overcome the obstacles they know are there. What the character needs to do is clear (get out). How she plans to do it is left to the imagination until she does it. (this raising the tension).
While you certainly don’t want to muddle your protag’s goals and make it unclear what the heck they’re trying to do, it is worth looking to see where you’re explaining too much. I cut a few lines and the tension of the scene went up dramatically.
It’s not always obvious. It’s telling the reader, but not “telling” in the technical sense of the word. It was active, in my protag’s voice, totally something she’d think and do. But it didn’t need to be said at that point of the story.
Look at your own scenes. Are you explaining how the protag will solve a problem before they do it? Try cutting that explanation and just having them do it. I bet you’ll find it makes the scene more exciting.
What are things you do that are typically tricks of another genre? How do you tighten a scene to raise the tension?
More articles on raising the tension:
Whoa, That’s Tense. Raising the Tension in Your Scenes