How Fiction Writers Can Ramp Up Tension and Pacing

This month our editors are going to tackle Fatal Flaw #7—Lack of Pacing and Tension. Rarely are fiction writers taught how to pace a story or how to create tension. These two important components are essential considerations, and it’s often easy to spot when a story or a novel’s scene lacks them. But not so easy to know how to fix the problems. So Rachel Scott Thomson begins our practical look at fixing this fatal flaw.

Pacing. It’s important. You know how sometimes you can’t put a book down—how the pages turn all by themselves as your heart rate speeds up and your eyes get wider and the book gets closer and closer to your nose?

Yeah, pacing does that. Books that use pacing really well—thriller novels and their kin—leave us feeling like we need a nap. Or therapy.

No matter what genre you write in, it will serve you well to learn how to improve pacing. This happens on a macro level—in the way you build a plot and develop characters, as well as in the order of scenes and the way those scenes play out. And pacing can be fine-tuned on a sentence level, down in the verbs and the punctuation.

This month we’ll be looking at the use of pacing and tension in fiction. I want to start right down in the details—in the words, rhythms, and techniques we can use to get our readers to the edges of their seats.

To illustrate these issues, I created a Before example from my book Exile, a supernatural thriller, and followed with the final After example.

BEFORE:

“There’s someone in the net,” Chris said. He looked closer—yes, he was sure he could see someone in the fishing net they had cast over the side. He and Tyler were out fishing together as they did most days. They had been best friends since childhood, and the ocean was their favorite place to go. They’d caught a lot of big fish over the years—but this was a human being.

“Tyler, haul the net in!” Chris commanded.

Dark clouds were gathering ahead. The boat was bobbing on the waves. Tyler heard Chris’s command and looked incredulously over the side. Yes, he could see someone in there too—Chris was right. He could see an arm and maybe a shoe. He wasn’t sure because of the spray in his eyes. He pulled the net up. Chris joined him, yelling, “Pull it up, Tyler, pull it up!”

It was so windy that it made their job harder. Finally they were able to get the net over the rail and dump it on the deck. Fish and other things spilled out, along with the person they had seen. It was a girl, a young woman, and they were pretty sure she was still alive.

Tyler couldn’t imagine where she had come from, but as he thought about it, he realized she must have fallen from the cliffs that were about half a mile away. It was noisy from the wind, so he raised his voice and shouted, “Did you fall?”

She shook her head no. She hugged herself against the cold. She gathered her feet under her. Her hair was long and dark, and it clung to her face and neck.

“I jumped,” she said.

He started to ask why she would do such a stupid thing, but he looked at her eyes and realized she was suffering. Probably in a lot of emotional pain. Why else would anyone do something like that? She was trying to commit suicide.

AFTER:

“There’s someone in the net—Tyler, haul the net in!”

Dark clouds were billowing over a choppy sea, the boat charging up and down the waves, when the words sank in. Through the spray and the looming storm Tyler saw it too—an arm, a flash of shoe. He braced himself and hauled, every muscle in his arms and back straining, and Chris joined him, still shouting:

“Pull!”

The wind gusted and pushed them like a thing alive.

They got the net over the rail and dumped it on the deck, silver fish flapping, detritus, and the person—a girl—a woman, young. Alive.

Tyler’s eyes darted to the cliffs a mile off. “Did you fall?” he screamed over the wind.

She shook her head, hugging herself, gathering her feet beneath her. Long hair, water-dark, clung to her face and neck.

“I jumped,” she said.

“Why the—” he started to swear, but one look at her hollow, tormented grey eyes shut his mouth.

Both examples tell the same story. But word choice and especially rhythm make them very different in impact.

Let’s break down some of what’s happening here. Chances are, you noticed the difference in terms of speed. The first rendition is slow. It actually makes an incredibly tense situation feel boring. The second rendition is rapid-fire; everything happens at once. Sight and sound and reaction all come at the reader quickly; we process like Tyler processes—in bits and pieces, through the senses, and with our hearts in our throats.

From a technical standpoint, what’s making the difference?

First, the Before passage is heavily cerebral. It spends a lot of time in Tyler’s thoughts, or telling us that he’s “looking at” something. It breaks away from the opening declaration—“There’s someone in the net”—to give ill-timed backstory on the characters. The momentum slows when the reader is told that Tyler and Chris are best friends who regularly fish together and love to be on the ocean. This is something that can become evident later; it shouldn’t be brought up in a paragraph showing someone being unexpectedly dragged out of the sea in a fishing net. One major key to rhythm is making sure your content is appropriate to the scene.

In sharp contrast, the After example is strongly sensory. It throws impressions at us through sight, hearing, scent, and touch.

Beginning writers often make the mistake of spending too much time telling us what’s in a character’s emotions, rather than putting us in touch with the senses that are creating those emotions.

  • In the first example, we get: “He looked at her eyes and realized she was suffering. Probably in a lot of emotional pain. Why else would anyone do something like that? She was trying to commit suicide.”
  • In the second we see what he sees and are invited to react the same way.

There are times to camp out in a character’s head. To process thoughts and feelings. But scenes in which you want to create a sense of urgency, fear, panic, or exhilaration are not those times.

Second, the language in the After passage is vivid and contributes to an overall atmosphere of tension. Compare the verbs in the two examples.

  • In the first, the clouds gather and the boat bobs.
  • In the second, the clouds billow and the boat charges. The whole effect is urgent, violent.
  • In the first: “It was so windy it made their job harder.”
  • In the second: “The wind gusted and pushed them like a thing alive.”

Every word should build the mood of the scene. Use active, strong, vivid verbs as well as specific nouns and adjectives that add to the atmosphere.

Third, pay attention to rhythm. Rhythm can be hard to define, but at its simplest level, it’s created by sentence length. Short sentences or phrases are flashes of insight, hammering action, stark realization. They feel like a caught breath, or in rapid succession, a pounding heart.

Look at the rhythm at the end of this description: “They got the net over the rail and dumped it on the deck, silver fish flapping, detritus, and the person—a girl—a woman, young. Alive.”

On the other hand, long, complex sentences can create a feeling that everything is happening at once. They’re helpful to overwhelm or to create a sense of things spinning out of control: “Dark clouds were billowing over a choppy sea, the boat charging up and down the waves, when the words sank in. Through the spray and the looming storm Tyler saw it too—an arm, a flash of shoe.”

Personally, I like to alter them. The effect is conflict: the long and the short warring with each other. In a tense scene, that’s exactly the result I want. The After passage uses this back-and-forth rhythm, with longer-action sentences punctuated by short, tense pieces of dialog.

Go for sentence wording and punctuation that mirror the flow of the action—staccato or flowing. Effective rhythm can also be created through alliteration, assonance, and other tools from the poet’s bag of tricks.

In conclusion: If you’re writing scenes that feel as  if they’re slogging through molasses when you want them to move quickly, with a lot of tension and emotion, try this: Scrap the scene as it stands now. Rewrite it entirely, focusing on the senses, using strong verbs, and playing with rhythm that mirrors the action. You might be amazed at what you can turn out.

Your turn:

Do you struggle to create scenes with the kind of pacing and tension you want? What techniques have helped you improve in this area? What techniques can you try that are new to you? Can you share an example of a passage that zings with tension and strong pacing?

4 Responses to “How Fiction Writers Can Ramp Up Tension and Pacing”

  1. ann severn benedek July 1, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    Hi! Great suggestions, much appreciated. Here’s my take on pace and tension, from my YA novel (first draft). Thanks again.

    ‘The door opens. I dive behind a pile of boxes. The light from the hall shows I’m in a storage room of some kind. A vacuum cleaner lurches in, knocks over a broom, skids through a rag pile and clangs against a metal pail. The door slams shut. It opens again. I sneak a look over the top box. Vince sniffs around the floor on his hands and knees – bet he’s after the key. He kicks the door shut. All I want is to get out, but wait a couple of minutes in case he’s still there. That’s when the smell hits my nose – something between a swamp and Vince’s armpits. I need light; tripping over whatever’s died in here is not an option. I count to ten then creep towards the door, slide my fingers over the wall and – got it! The switch clicks and a bulb glares overhead.

    My stomach somersaults a couple of times then morphs into a block of ice. A skinny kid huddles against the back wall. He stares at me and I stare back. His hair is matted with dirt; looks like he could’ve fallen into a sewer – guess that explains the smell. And he’s like totally naked. I’m just about to say something when a buzz vibrates through my head and a voice – the same voice that got me up here – murmurs “Help.” Help? What am I supposed to do? I mean, Vince is probably lurking out there. Anyway, maybe the kid’s dangerous . . . crazy. Like, what do I know? Must stop receiving. Block . . . yes, I can do that. The boy shifts into a crouch, then turns away. The voice stops. Do I rush for the door? Not that I’d get far on rubber legs. I stagger back. Okay. Open the door . . . I’m out. Close it again and fumble the key into the keyhole. Did the lock click? Yes. Dizzy now. Shivering. Can’t breathe. I lean my forehead against the door.

    What just happened?’

  2. Christine Goodnough July 1, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    Good thoughts in this post. I’ve noticed these points, too, in different books I’ve read.

    It seems to me that a writer has to walk a fine line between realistic and melodramatic. An author wants strong writing, especially adjectives and verbs that convey tension, but not to the point of sounding melodramatic and phony.

    another point would be to eliminate repetition. I read a cozy mystery a few days ago that was so plodding, the conversation seemed stiff.Real people wouldn’t talk like that. And then the MC would repeat in thought what had been said. For example:
    He glared at her in fury. “What are you doing here anyway?” he demanded.
    Oh, dear, Dee thought. He’s angry with me for being here. I guess I should have stayed home.

    A good editor could probably have shortened this book by 30% just be eliminating all the repetition. We don’t need to be told six times, both in conversations and in thoughts, that the detective is a bumbler who’ll never catch the crook. Or that the female MC is dazzled by the male MC’s lavish lifestyle, gorgeous physique or whatever.

  3. Tracy Sayre July 15, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    I love this series! As I was reading through my manuscript, I noticed that everything felt like it took the same amount of time to happen. It ended up feeling very dry and calculated. I’m going to do another series of revisions using these techniques now! This was so helpful! Thanks!

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STRATEGIC PLANNING IN 4 EASY STEPS

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