Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Goals! Are You Making Them Too Obvious?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

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.
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.

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


  1. This is great advice. If we know how they're going to get out of the mess, it's not always as exciting. I had the problem of letting my characters talk too much about what they were doing rather than moving towards doing it. It increased the tension by cutting some of the planning dialogue.

    Also, sometimes when the main character figures out something, I don't have her tell right away to increase the tension.

  2. Great information. Thanks!

  3. Great post. You really explain the concept well, and give excellent ways to bump up the tension.

  4. This is a wonderful tip. Thanks Janice. I actually do this in my WIP, but I didn't to it consciously. It's nice to know WHY it works.

  5. Great advice! I'd never heard that before.

  6. What we reveal and when we reveal it is part of the pacing of the story. Good tips. What I hate is when a writer is in deep 3rd or 1st person POV and they hide things the character would definitely be aware of.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Great post, Janice! I've noticed this a lot in TV shows and movies. The protagonist or another character tells the other character something like, "I have a plan," and then the scene cuts to them carrying it out without telling you what will happen. It's much more intriguing this way.

    An example of this was in an episode of Doctor Who ("Human Nature"), where you have no idea what's going on until later in the episode.

  8. Something I've noticed from watching Burn Notice is they only ever tell me the plan if it's going to fail horribly. If I know that X needs to happen and X fails badly, that raises tension and they have to come up with a brand-new plan. If the plan's going to work, or work with only one hiccup towards the end, it's usually not explained. That's become my rule-of-thumb for explaining or not.

    Thanks for this post -- I hadn't thought of examining a hierarchy of want-to-knows, and then revealing in reverse order.

  9. Excellent advice, Janice! I can see how handling things in the reverse order would raise the tension and suspense of a scene. This will help past a few trouble spots.

    Thanks. Great post!

  10. Great advice... I am still working on answering those questions for myself, so I have no answer for you.

  11. Natalie: I do the "talk too much" thing too, especially when they're in a planning session. These days I tend to let them talk to figure it out, then cut the whole thing.

    Louiseso: Most welcome!

    Mary Kate: Thanks, I'm glad it was helpful.

    Angie: This blog has been the best thing for me to figure out those whys. And studying that really helped me improve overall. That's actually not a bad idea for a post, so thanks!

    Chicory: Her whole post is very good, so I recommend popping over there.

    Terry: That bugs me too. It can be a fine line between mystery and annoyance, but it's fun to write.

    Brittany: I love Doctor Who! And yep, that's a great example of it. You never know what he has planned and it all comes together so well. That was a great episode.

    MK: LOL I never noticed that but I will now. That's really funny.

    Gene: Awesome! I don't know if it would work with all scenes, but it's worth looking at to see what we can do to shake things up.

    Jeff: No worries :) Asking questions is a great way to learn, and thinking about the answers we don't yet have lets us know where to focus.

  12. This is great advice. I think I do this sometimes, but knowing what it is and how to use it as a tool to build suspense is great.

    Thank you.

  13. Readers are smart and when following a story they should know what is going on and what the goals are the scene is. I think as writers we can go out of her way, at times too much, to explain goals when we don't need to. Esp. in thrillers. Great post!