Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stretching the Tension by James Scott Bell (Part 3)

Another episode in The Stretching the Tension special...

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 3

Stretch the emotional

A scene does not have to involve physical peril to have tension worth stretching. Trouble can be emotional as well.

When a character is in the throes of emotional turmoil, don't make things easy on her. We humans are a circus of doubts and anxieties. Play them up! Give us the whole show.

In the first chapter of The Deep End of the Ocean (Penguin) by Jacquelyn Mitchard, protagonist Beth's young son, Ben, disappears in a crowded hotel. The next 40 pages cover hours, not days. Emotional beat upon emotional beat is rendered as Beth experiences the various manifestations of shock, fear, grief and guilt.

For example, when the detective, Candy Bliss, suggests Beth lie down, Mitchard gives us this paragraph:

Beth supposed she should lie down; her throat kept filling with nastiness and her stomach roiled. But if she lay down, she wanted to explain to Candy Bliss, who was holding out her hand, it would be deserting Ben. Did Detective Bliss think Ben was lying down? If Beth ate, would he eat? She should not do anything Ben couldn't do or was being prevented from doing. Was he crying? Or wedged in a dangerous and airless place? If she lay down, if she rested, wouldn't Ben feel her relaxing, think she had decided to suspend her scramble toward him, the concentrated thrust of everything in her that she held out to him like a life preserver? Would he relax then, turn in sorrow toward a bad face, because his mama had let him down?

Notice how Mitchard uses physical descriptions that show rather than tell: "throat kept filling with nastiness"; "stomach roiled."

She places us in Beth's mind as her thoughts come one after another. Then Mitchard returns to the action of the scene. And so the beats continue.

To stretch inner tension, ask these questions to get your raw material:

*What is the worst thing from the inside that can happen to my character? This encompasses a whole universe of mental stakes. Hint: Look to the character's fears.

*What is the worst information my character can receive? Some secret from the past or fact that rocks her world can be stalking her through the scene.

*Have I sufficiently set up the depth of emotion for the readers before the scene? We need to care about your lead characters before we care about their problems.

Read Part 1
Read Part 2 on Stretching the Physical

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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