Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And the Winner of the Tension Contest is...

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm having a great time reading these contest entries. Some really great scene snippets and writing. This week was on tension, and it was fun to see what everyone came up with. I'm going to do something a teeny bit different this time, (since this is really all about helping writers improve) and give both why I liked the entry, and something the writer might try to improve a scene like this in the future.

Great job everyone!

Here are the finalists:

Amy Schaefer
“You didn’t know? Becks!” Jill shouted.

But I was already gone. Find Ben, find Ben, find…

“Rebecca, hello.” Aunt Miriam blocked my way. She dropped her voice. “So what’s this big news? Your mother won’t tell me - typical.”

“I don’t know,” I lied. “Have you seen Ben?”

She shrugged. “With the boys, I imagine, in the garage.”

“Thanks.” Over thirty and still “the boys.” I grinned until I remembered why I was running. Around the corner, past the kitchen, find Ben…

“Rebecca Lane, do not run in my house.” Mom couldn’t even see me – she was busy at the stove. How did she do that?

“Sorry,” I called. I careened around some younger cousins playing Marco Polo in the hallway, then threw open the door to the garage. No Ben.


I ran outside, ignoring the mud squishing through my socks. Ben, I thought, for once in your life, please don’t tell.

As I rounded the corner to the backyard, pandemonium erupted on the patio. Everyone was hugging and crying. I backed against the wall.

“Becky!” Uncle John wrapped me in a bear hug. “You’re getting married!”

I looked over his shoulder. Ben was beaming at me. “I couldn’t wait any longer.” He didn’t look the least bit sorry.

Behind him, framed in the sliding door, stood my sister - hands clenched, holding back tears. Mom put an arm around her and looked daggers at me.

Why didn’t they tell me ahead of time that Liz was finally pregnant?
What I like about this one is that the tension is interspersed with humor, so it's tense, yet light, which isn't always easy to do. It offers a story question and makes you wonder what she needs Ben for and what she doesn't want him telling. Then it hits you with a hook that makes that first question carry even more weight. How does the pregnancy fit into the announcement? Suggestion to tweak: Until the very end when you hit the hook, the tension is the same level overall. It's the same question: why does she want Ben? I think you could raise the tension if you escalated what she was worried about more.

The curtain to the ADULTS ONLY room whipped open. The man who came with Marshall stalked out with a bunch of videos. Marshall scooted away from the counter as the man dumped his stack in front of me. He threw down a twenty. It skated off the counter and landed on my lap.

“Will this be all, sir?” I said, sorting through the tapes.

This was sick stuff. It wasn’t my business to judge the customers. But this man had gross-looking stains on his Hulk shirt. You get all sorts of bums in this store, jobless grownups with the same stringy shoulder-length hair and sour smell. But this guy, there was something dangerously dazed about him.

“How much you got?” he said, gesturing at Marshall.

Marshall shrugged his shoulders, real slow and impudent. The man’s face didn’t even twitch. He grabbed Marshall by the waistband, pawing at his back pocket.

“Hey, hey, a twenty’s enough,” I said, halfway out of my seat.

The man dropped Marshall on the ground. He tossed another crinkled five onto the counter before he stalked back to the ADULTS ONLY room.

“Asshole,” Marshall muttered. He tugged his pants up.

I scanned the video tapes quickly. The women on the covers looked like they were in pain.

“Is he your dad?” I said.

“My aunt’s husband.”

“What happened to your mom?”

“She became a unicorn,” Marshall said.

Marshall’s aunt’s husband came back with two more tapes. On the cover of the last one, there was a scared-looking boy our age getting shoved into a crate. It wasn’t my business to judge.
This one has a great sense of "things are not right" and I like how the narrator is trying not to judge, and how those two phrases frame the scene. It escalates nicely, with things going more and more wrong and leaving with a sense of badness that makes you curious what will happen with these two people. Suggestion to tweak: There's no sense that the protagonist is in any danger, so even though it's a tense scene, it's not personal enough to make the reader worry. A little more internalization from the narrator to see that judge struggle, and showing what he has at stake here, would make this quite gripping.

Emily J.
Finally. Alone in Emeline Greene's house.

Of course, I have no idea who Emeline Greene is, or was, only that her name is inscribed on the crumbling, granite steps. Like the rest of the house, the stone steps are in an advanced stage of neglect. The years have not been kind to this onetime Victorian beauty; and yet, an aura something grand and glamorous still clings to her weathered veneer.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm kind of obsessed with this house.

"Infested with raccoons!" My mother warned me. "Any fool who trespasses there had better get their rabies vaccines."

Trespasses. True, I am trespassing. But -- how does the expression go --something about asking for forgiveness instead of permission?

"Sorry Emeline," I say, and then laugh out loud. The house laughs too. Strange echo.

Shadows of leafy branches dance across the faded wallpaper. The pattern is still discernible in a few places, pink vertical stripes and tiny painted rosebuds. Enchanting. Just like I knew it would be.

I slink down a narrow hallway into the kitchen. A blanket of undisturbed dust masks every surface. A stout, porcelain pitcher is swaddled in cob webs. Seven wooden spoons of varying sizes are arranged neatly on the floor. What is that all about?

I step over the spoons, careful not to displace them. Something much too white pokes up out of the sink. I move closer. It's a chicken…a freshly dead one. And, it's arranged neatly, no blood, no missing feathers.

Definitely not raccoons.
I like the personal aspect of this one, and the sense that there is danger lurking just around the corner. It's a quieter scene, and builds slowly to the hook. The narrator is doing something she knows she shouldn't, and she finds evidence of something very wrong. Suggestion to tweak: Until the hook the tension is light, so it didn't pull me in as strongly as it could have. Perhaps add a little more concern from the narrator and uncertainty about what she's doing or what she hopes to find at the start. She can be hopeful about what she'll find if you want to keep the lightness of it, or start with worry to build to the drama.

Amy had always been a Good Girl.

But now, edging toward her mother’s bedroom, she felt anything but good. The thin line of light beneath the door grew larger as she approached until finally it seized her bare feet. She raised her hand to knock, then stopped.


Not yet. She couldn’t do it.

Soundlessly, Amy wilted, leaning against the wall beside the door. Her forehead pressed on the faded wallpaper, its tiny flowers mocking her misery. She closed her eyes. How had she gotten here, deflated, in a cold hallway listening to the canned laughter of a sitcom behind her mother’s door?

Images of that night passed before her for the hundredth time. A Ford Bronco. Tom Petty on the classic rock station. Eric’s lips, chapped from too many hours in the sun, his breath a cloud of Doublemint in her mouth, on her neck, on her skin. Leather seats, cold, then not. The open teeth of his zipper nipping at her thigh.

And then, later, the blood that never came.



Amy lifted her hand again. This time she was able to knock, but as soon as she did so, she wished she could take it back. At the call from her mother, she gripped the doorknob and turned. It took two tries—her hand was sweaty—but the door opened and Amy took a step into the lamplit room.

She had always been a Good Girl . . .
What I like about this one is the slow build of tension throughout. It's also personal, and the tension amps up the inherent conflict of the scene itself. The framing of the good girl comments really make me want to know why she isn't a good girl anymore. Suggestion to tweak: Honestly, this suggestion is personal taste, so it's not much of a suggestion (grin). I think this is very well done. The third person felt a little detached to me, and I'd have wanted a slightly tighter POV, maybe a touch more showing to take advantage of the emotions going on here.

And the winner is...


What pushed this one over the top for me was the line by line build up of tension. She had been a good girl, then next paragraph she isn't a good girl, so I wonder what she did to not be a good girl. Then she wonders if she should she knock or not, so I wonder if she will and why won't she. How did she get to this point? I again wonder what she did and what was it that built to this, that maybe it's not just a one-time mistake. The memory description is lovely, evocative without giving too much away. I get the sense of what happened, but nothing clear enough for me to know for sure--and I want to know. Then it slips in something unexpected--blood that never came. Now everything is colored with a creepier vibe and I'm not sure where this is going. Finally, the knock comes, but instead of getting a release from it, it's worse because the narrator immediate wishes she could take it back. Bu the time Amy is in the room, I'm dying to know what she did and how all these little details add up.

Jillian, just contact me at janice (@) janicehardy (dot) com for your critique.

Grats and fantastic job to everyone!


  1. These are ALL awesome. Congrats, Jillian, on a job well done!

  2. I'm going to do something a teeny bit different this time, (since this is really all about helping writers improve) and give both why I liked the entry, and something the writer might try to improve a scene like this in the future.

    THANK YOU! Very helpful!

  3. Truthfully, I saw the title of this post and Jillian's entry popped into mind before I even read it! Brava, all!

  4. Way to go, Jillian! And, Janice, the compliments and suggestions were very helpful. I love getting to see these entries through your eyes.

  5. Great job everybody. Impressive entries, all of them. I thought the scene of the no-so-good girl missing her period and anticipating THAT conversation with her mother was very well done.

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  7. Thanks for the kind comments. I really enjoyed reading everyone's entries and Janice's observations. It is so helpful to see words put under a microscope like that.

    And Amy, I noticed that your piece had a Jill and mine had an Amy. Does that make us kindred spirits?

  8. Sorry, I'm late to the party! Thank you, Janice, for your very thoughtful suggestions. Everyone did an incredible job.