Create some tension

Are you sure you’re starting your story at the right point? Are you approaching it from the best angle?

There’s an old joke about a driver who stops an elderly man and asks directions. The old man considers this for a while before replying, ‘Well, to begin with, I wouldn’t start from here….’

Sometimes, if you follow the strictly chronological sequence of events, you risk revealing too much to your readers and depriving them of the satisfaction of working things out for themselves. This is equally true of chapters, scenes and even whole novels. Should you describe a scene in detail, as it happens, or would it be better to come in later, after the event and leave the reader to fill in the gaps and draw their own conclusions?

When you switch the order of events, you can present them through the eyes of your main character, interspersing them with his thoughts and suspicions and help build dramatic tension. Importantly, it allows the reader to follow up the clues themselves.

If you’re writing a detective novel it might make more sense to leave out the blow-by-blow account of the murder and start with the arrival of the detective on the scene. This way, you won’t be tempted to reveal too much in your description; you will be able to present a number of carefully laid clues, trust your readers to recognise their significance and use them to solve the crime alongside the detective. After all, you want the detective to solve the crime, so why give away the modus operandi?

Describing a traffic accident as it happens can border on the gruesome, which will turn some readers off.  It can also be very difficult to write convincingly. By skipping to the immediate aftermath you avoid the violence of the impact itself and allow the reader to use their imagination to create their own picture of events.

Different viewpoints of the same scene can also generate tension. In my novel I describe a will reading, seen through the eyes of my main character. Everything proceeds as normal until the lawyer gets to a surprising codicil to the will and the chapter ends there, on a cliffhanger. In the following chapter, I take up the story from the point of view of a different character – the beneficiary of the mysterious codicil. The sudden and unexpected arrival of this woman creates drama and tension. It also gives me an opportunity to reveal other aspects of the main character and set up the future action.

Take a step back and consider if you really need all that description. Does it help move the story along? If it doesn’t, think about altering the order of events or the viewpoint – it could change your story for the better.


5 thoughts on “Create some tension

  1. Great post! I’m running into this problem right now. I’m trying to write the sequel to a book I’m self-publishing (actually, it’s the sequel to the sequel. Anyway…), and I just can’t figure out how to start the book. I know there needs to be a 3 month time jump between the new book and the last one, but I can’t decide if I should start the book before the time jump or after. Or should there even be a time jump? Ack!

    • My opinion? If the time jump is important to the story, start the sequel after it’s happened, with a new chapter, titled ‘3 months later’ and a change of scene. You don’t need to give yourself the headache of getting all your characters 3 months into the future and explaining what they’ve been doing all this time… But if this doesn’t work and it turns out the the story doesn’t need a time jump after all, just delete ‘3 months later’. Viola!

  2. Excellent post! Too much information up front can not only slow the action, but also take away that tension as you say. It’s difficult for a reader to process all that information at first, and then what does it leave for the characters to discover or use?

    Of course, not providing enough details early on can confuse a reader, too. Where is she? Who is this character, and should she root for him or against him? I think it’s easy for new writers to hit one extreme or the other. Finding that right mix of tension and grounding is a tricky skill to master.

  3. You’re right – a lot of information doesn’t always help. Readers like to draw their own conclusions, they don’t always want to be spoon-fed with extraneous detail that doesn’t move the story along. So what if the heroine likes wearing socks in bed? If this delicious little snippet doesn’t have anything to do with the story or give us some useful information about her character, leave it out. 🙂

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