Monday, December 15, 2008

Stretching the Tension by James Scott Bell (Part 4)

And the conclusion of our Stretching the Tension series...

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 4

Stretch the big and small

Think of tension stretching as an elongation of bad times. This can be on a large scale, as in Jeffery Deaver's A Maiden's Grave (Signet), a novel about a one-day hostage crisis. Each chapter is marked by a clock reading, such as 11:02 a.m. The chapters then give the full range of dramatic beats.

Tension also can be stretched on a microlevel. Usually these can be added when you're revising. You come across beats that pass a little too quickly for the rhythm you're trying to create.

In my one of my novels featuring an early 1900s Los Angeles lawyer, Kit Shannon, Kit shares a meal with the temperance champion, Carry Nation. The first draft of the scene read like this:

Their laughter was interrupted by the figure of the chief of police, Horace Allen. He stood at their table with one of his uniformed officers. Kit knew immediately this was not a social call.
"Kathleen Shannon." The chief's voice was thunderous.
"Good evening, Chief."

I felt the moment, for dramatic purposes, needed a little more time. I rewrote it adding more beats, such as the chief's voice causing all conversation to cease within the place:

Kit felt the silence, sensed the social opprobrium flowing her way from the gentile patrons. A pleasant evening was being rudely interrupted, and that was not why people came to the Imperial.

The best way to get the right amount of tension into your novel is to stretch it as much as possible in your first draft and then look at what you've got.

Go for it, and don't worry about overdoing it or wearing out the reader. You have that wonderful thing called revision to save you. If you write hot, packing scenes with physical and emotional tension, you always can revise cool, and scale back on rewrite. That's much easier to do than trying to heat things up the second time around.

Of course not every scene should be a big, suspenseful set piece. A novel can only sustain a few of those and you want them to stand out. But any scene can be stretched beyond its natural comfort zone. Get in the habit of finding the cracks and crevices where troubles lay and burrowing in to see what's there. You may strike gold. And your Readers will be thankful for the effort.

Read Part 1
Read Part 2 on Stretching the Physical

Read Part 3 on Stretching the Emotional

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.


The Koala Bear Writer said...

Excellent advice! Thanks again for sharing this interview. I just wrote a short story that needs some more tension, so I'm reviewing this article and thinking about how I need to rewrite the story... :)

Kathleen Peacock said...

I'm actually reading "Plot & Structure" for a refresher and am quite enjoying it.

I find writing books are often hit or miss but this is one I'd actually recommend.