Friday, December 12, 2008

Stretching the Tension by James Scott Bell (Part 1)

James Scott Bell has been a writing mentor to me. His novels, as well as his writing how-to articles and books, have taught me so many aspects of writing fiction.

Of those articles, "Stretching The Tension", is one I've turned to again and again as I write action scenes or scenes that really need to carry emotional depth. It first appeared in Writer's Digest magazine (and later was featured as a chapter in his book Plot & Structure). Jim has graciously given me permission to reprint that article here in four parts.

Stretching the Tension
by James Scott Bell
Part 1

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And from the shower scene on, people were screaming their heads off.

I'm glad my first exposure to the movie was not on television. I got to see it uncut, which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene. But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without interruption.

The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn't sleep for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

Set up the tension

Before you can stretch anything, of course, you need raw material. You don't fashion a clay pot without clay. The clay for a novelist is trouble. The question you have to keep asking is this: What problem has the potential to lay some serious hurt on my character?

If your lead character has misplaced his pajamas, you could write several pages about it, throwing obstacle after obstacle in his path (a roller skate, a phone call, the postman ringing twice). But the hunt is unlikely to engage your readers. There isn't enough trouble at stake at the end of the line (unless, of course, your hero has hidden the mafia's money in the pajama bottoms and has five minutes to find it).

So the first rule is simple: Always make sure scenes of tension provide something to be tense about.

When you've got a handle on the trouble for your character in a given scene, you're ready to stretch it. You can do that with two aspects of your fiction---the physical and the emotional. Each presents an opportunity to transform your story from the mundane to the thrilling.

Part 2 on Stretching the Physical

Part 3 : Stretching the Emotional
Part 4: Stretch the Big & Small

Find out more about James Scott Bell at his website,

His novels include the Ty Buchanan mystery series, Presumed Guilty, The Whole Truth, No Legal Grounds, among others. His writing how-to books Plot & Structure as well as Revision and Self-Editing are invaluable resources.

Read my interviews with Jim: Interview #1, Interview #2 as well as reviews of: Presumed Guilty, No Legal Grounds, The Whole Truth, Try Dying, Try Darkness, and Revision & Self-Editing.

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