Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stretching the Tension by James Scott Bell (Part 2)

The Stretching the Tension special continues...

James Scott Bell has been one of my writing mentors. 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 2

Stretch the physical

Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch. The way to do it is simple--slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you are watching a movie scene in slow motion.

Then, as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.

Let's say you have a woman being stalked by a man with assault on his mind. It could start this way:

Mary took a step back. [action]
"Don't be afraid," the man said. [dialogue]
How did he get in here? she wondered. The doors are all locked. [thought]
He swayed where he stood [action], and she could smell the beer on his breath. [description]
"Get out," she said. [dialogue]
He laughed and slid toward her. [action]

Want to stretch even more? Good. Do it. Each item--action, thoughts, dialogue, description--can be extended:

Mary took a step back, bumping the end table. A vase crashed to the floor. [action]
"Don't be afraid," the man said. "I don't want to hurt you, Mary. I want to be your friend." [dialogue]
How did he get in here? she wondered. The doors are all locked. And then she remembered she'd left the garage door open for Johnny. Stupid, stupid. You deserve this, you always deserve what you get. [thoughts]

Extending beats can even stretch tension when a character is alone. The secret, once again, is in the set-up material.

In One Door Away From Heaven (Bantam), Dean Koontz writes a scene early in the book where Leilani, a 9-year-old girl, walks through a trailer home to find her drugged out mother. Koontz sets the scene up with this:

Saturated by silence, the house brimmed also with an unnerving expectancy, as though some bulwark were about to crack, permitting a violent flood to sweep everything away.

From there, for seven pages, Leilani continues, step by step. The suspense builds until the revelation at the end of the scene. This section, which many writers would have dealt with in a paragraph, adds enormously to the tension of the whole book.

Your ability to orchestrate beats so they conform to the tone and feel of the story you're telling is one of the most important skills you can develop. Ask yourself these three key questions before you write a tense scene involving physical action:

1. What is the worst thing from the outside that can happen to my character? This may be in the form of another person, a physical object or a circumstance outside the character's control.

2. What is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene? You may come up with an instant answer. Don't stop there--raise the stakes a notch. This may suggest further possibilities.

3. Have I sufficiently set up the danger for the readers before the scene begins? Remember, they need to know what's at stake for your characters before they start worrying.

Part 1
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.

1 comment:

The Koala Bear Writer said...

I don't write "suspense" per se, but Sigmund Brouwer would say every novel needs some suspense. Koontz is definately a master at this--as Bell says, taking pages to tell/describe what other writers would put into a paragraph. And Psycho--yeah, if you want to see what suspense is, watch that! Thanks for reprinting this.