Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

The benefits of using unexpected places to create tension in a story.

Consider a house. Envision its rooms. Think about the living room (or perhaps you say ‘family room’) where everything social goes down: TV, gaming, chatter and kid squabbles (sometimes popcorn mashed between sofa seats). The bedroom, where rest and intimacy happen. The bathroom (restroom, if you’re American) where privacy is expected. The stoop, porch, or front step where visitors are met and strangers are kept at a safe distance from the inner sanctum. Then there’s the kitchen, the ‘heart of the home’. Here we prepare meals (with recipes that are often part of our heritage or history), we break bread, and we share dinner conversation with one another.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about seasons carrying specific tones, moods, and expectations. The same can be said, on a minutiae scale, the rooms in our homes. 

In literature and film, we often experience pivotal scenes set within rooms that either underscore or contrast the action going down—thus making the scene in question stronger, more emotionally powerful, or sometimes just more authentic.

Consider Nora Roberts. Roberts frequently has her characters engage in table-talk over dinner they’ve cooked in their kitchens—an ordinary, everyday activity we can all relate to (thus making her characters very authentic), except these authentic characters, unlike the rest of us ho-hum drones, are engaged in very tense and surreal circumstances—and that’s what makes for Roberts’ hugely bestselling fiction.

Think about other scenes you’ve read or seen. How many excellent, deep conversations have taken place over a kitchen table like Roberts does? Were you even aware that the placement of the characters in that kitchen heightened the intensity, empathy, or sense of authenticity you felt? Or how about a hot love scene where the heroine finally—finally—invites the hero into her bedroom? Her most intimate physical space and her most intimate bodily place now visited by her lover. Now that’s intense.

Setting typically isn’t, and never should be, an accident—and we can play up the psychological expectations we carry about places in our fiction; what they connote for us, and what we think is ‘supposed’ to happen there.

Supposed to happen there. Aye. There’s where the rubber hits the road.

Good writing means tension, and in my article about color, I got a lot of feedback on how cool it was to use incongruous colors to generate tension. So why not apply the same theory to rooms in a house? Contrive a high level of discomfort by contrasting what should be vs. what is.

For example, erase the idea of the sadistic stranger breaking into the heroine’s bedroom. That’s been done (and done and done and done). What if Creepo broke into her living room, (where people are expected to congregate anyway)? What if she’s been sipping Diet Coke and watching innocuous ol’ Grey’s Anatomy, a Netflix marathon of the promiscuous docs, when all of a sudden Creepo, behind her, says “We could do that” as on screen Izzy and Alex are gettin’ it on?

Would her blood not turn to ice? Oh, I think it would.

Try climbing out of the cliché places in a house where things usually go down, and make that contradiction work at amplifying the tension in your fiction. 

How about:

A torrid love scene occurring on the front porch ’cause the starved hero just can’t contain himself any longer. Lord, the neighbors might see! It’s broad daylight! Cars are driving by! Incongruent, right? Awakens discomfort, doesn’t it (‘Will they get caught?!’)? But a hot scene! Far hotter than if they just shucked their undies in a boring old bedroom.

A disclosure of plot-twisting magnitude happening in a bathroom. (A bathroom?! Yeah. Anywhere else they might be overheard, and a feigned tummy bug and frequent flushing muffles the conversation).

A romantic dinner in the garage. (Whhhhhatt?) Don’t scoff! If you write comedy or have characters who are a little on the zany side, a candlelit garage dinner might be just what your heroine thought it would take to win her car-loving hero over (yet it isn’t—hooray! More tension).

You get the idea, and will likely churn out far better incongruences and contradictions than I have.

But there’s more. Take it deeper. Work with complexities like the age of characters and what someone of that age would typically (or, in this case, not typically) do in a particular room (ie: a 10 year old making flawless crème brulee in a crappy apartment kitchen?) Now you have a tension catalyst.

Gender too makes an impact - yes, yes, we need to be cognizant of equality, but how many men do you know who are in a craft room scrapbooking photographs of their babies? And if you met one wouldn’t you want to know why that’s his hobby? I know I would.

Placement of objects in incongruent rooms is also a revealing and provocative device. 

Years ago I went to a Donald Maass workshop, and he had us do a fantastic exercise within which our character was to keep his / her prized possession in a most unlikely spot. At that time I was writing about a hockey player (yeah, yeah; I’m a one-trick-pony wit’ da hockey players, I know) and he kept his trophies in the bathroom. What a revealingly opened vein. An opportunity to create pathos a reader could dial into and root for.

So as I close off this week’s article: consider all the preconceived notions we hold about:

1. Rooms in our home and what’s ‘supposed’ to happen there

2. The things we keep in certain places (What’s that dining table doing in your bedroom?! On second thought, I don’t wanna know)

3. How different dwellers in the home are expected to behave in certain rooms (Why is Grandma swinging on your stripper pole? Come to think of it, why do you have a stripper pole?! Wait a sec – this might be one of those things I don’t wanna know again).

Employ a circumstance atypical and unlikely (hey! Now I have an 8 yr old mechanic in my head. And a commode in a kitchen. Ugh) to add heat, dimension, and, most importantly, TENSION to your fiction. Why? ’Cause incongruence is tension, and tension turns the page!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Oh wow! What a fantastic article! Thanks for making my brain explode with possibilities. :) Just picked up your book, too. I'm looking forward to seeing how you've practiced what you've preached. I love the unexpected in stories.

    1. hurrah and hurrah and thanks so much! Here's hopin' I'm a good practitioner - never been called a preacher before ;)

    2. You have NOW! Take it off your bucket list. haha! ;)

    3. I should see if I could order a cleric's collar off amazon. It might be a good look for me ;)

    4. I'm seeing a new profile pic in your future! buahaha!

  2. Love it. Any time you can take the norm and twist it on its ear, you have magic.

  3. As a writer of women's fiction, I've struggled with the concept of putting tension in the story. The narrative doesn't lend itself to an ongoing external series of events (how many car chases, gang fights, kidnappings can a women's novel contain, not to mention dragons). Your last sentence "incongruence is tension" and your examples resonated - learning something every day. Thanks for sharing.

  4. This American considers a restroom a public bathroom outside the home. Library, conference center, etc. Everyone I know calls their home bathroom a bathroom.

  5. This gives me some wonderful ideas to play around with. And that porch scene...well, I'll just say it's happened to me before :)

  6. Thanks for reposting this article!