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Thread: Tension in a scene - how to create?

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin ElsieTanner's Avatar
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    Tension in a scene - how to create?

    I’m writing a scene where my MC (and her sidekick) is searching the antagonist’s house in an attempt to find the MacGuffin. I want the scene to be tense: will she get caught by him returning, will she find the MacGuffin, what might she find instead?

    At the moment I don’t think there’s much tension in the scene – just a bit of ‘cripes, we should hurry before he returns’ - any tips on how to create it?

    (BTW she’s searching a modern house so there’s no scope for creaking windows etc)

    Ta muchly.

  2. #2
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Suspense and tension is most obviously created by:

    a) stakes
    b) a ticking clock

    If there is something really important hanging on whether she finds this thing or not, she's going to be tense, anxious, perhaps even panicky or desperate. There's tension.

    If she's not only anxious to find said McGuffin, but there's also a ticking clock running in the background (either SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN IF I DON'T FIND THIS BEFORE X or there's a limited window of opportunity to find it) then there will be even more tension.

    A scene from Misery comes to mind. Paul Sheldon is searching the house while Annie is out, and he's desperate to find something that will help him escape. He has few enough opportunities because she doesn't leave him very often. He knows she wont' be long, and he can't leave any sign that he's been out of his room or she'll punish him. So he has to put everything back exactly where he found it. The tension increases because the more he discovers about her, the more dangerous he realises she is. And the tension hits the roof when he hears her car coming up the road and he has to get back into his room NOW, but then he knocks something over in his haste...

    King is a master of ratcheting up the tension.
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  3. #3
    Blissfully Clueless Mutive's Avatar
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    There could still be sounds - her phone ringing or beeping as a text comes in, cats or dogs or mice scurrying in the halls, etc. Lights flickering in windows. The wind blowing...

  4. #4
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mutive View Post
    There could still be sounds - her phone ringing or beeping as a text comes in,
    That's only tension if the text is her accomplice telling her that the owner of the house just came back and is five minutes away from discovering her.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mutive View Post
    cats or dogs or mice scurrying in the halls, etc. Lights flickering in windows. The wind blowing...
    That's not tension, that's atmosphere. The two are not synonymous, but many inexperienced writers try to manufacture tension by creating atmosphere. A door banging shut in the wind might cause someone to jump, but it is not in itself an internal reason for tension in the scene.

    Now, if the door banged shut because it's someone coming back to see why there's a flashlight moving around in the house...
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  5. #5
    The grad students did it NeuroFizz's Avatar
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    Don't forget the mechanics of writing tense scenes--short choppy sentences and paragraphs frequently will help put the reader on edge. It's not a time for drawn out, smooth prose, nor is it time to get overly descriptive. Manipulation of pace is also important if you want the reader to be on the breathless side.
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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    As someone else said, creaking windows and noises etc., are simply atmospheric unless they are linked to the real possibility of the antagonist having returned.

    The phrase I've highlighted is where your tension lies. Will the MC get caught in the act? That's the question you have to cause to arise in the reader's mind. And I, the reader, have to know there is a serious risk of the antagonist returning and that there will be dire consequences if your MC is caught.

    There are numerous ways your MC could become aware the antagonist is returning - some are touched on in the responses above.

    How might she know or see him returning? Has she left her exit too late? Is her exit blocked? Is her sidekick trying to communicate to warn her the antagonist is on the way up the drive, but can't?

    Imagining yourself in your MC's predicament is always the best way of solving situations like this and finding the tension or whatever you are looking for.

    Quote Originally Posted by ElsieTanner View Post
    I’m writing a scene where my MC (and her sidekick) is searching the antagonist’s house in an attempt to find the MacGuffin. I want the scene to be tense: will she get caught by him returning, will she find the MacGuffin, what might she find instead?

    At the moment I don’t think there’s much tension in the scene – just a bit of ‘cripes, we should hurry before he returns’ - any tips on how to create it?

    (BTW she’s searching a modern house so there’s no scope for creaking windows etc)

    Ta muchly.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  7. #7
    Don't Eat the Grot! August Talok's Avatar
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    I like using short chopped-up sentences. Quick one word shots. Walking. Breathing. The sound that radiates in your ears when things are dead quiet.
    "Always keep 'em guessing."


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    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    I've been told that every scene in a novel has to have some tension. But what creates that tension can vary a great deal. Some people think tension always equals conflict and high drama, and say that every scene must have conflict. Conflict is one type of tension builder, certainly, but it is not the only kind.

    Tension can arise, for instance, from your character having a goal of some kind, and from their being at least a chance of their not achieving it. It can also arise from the character (or reader) not having all the information they need but having to make a decision. Or from two characters who are essentially working together still having the potential for misunderstanding. Or from a character's lingering misgivings once he or she has made a decision. It doesn't always have to be high drama. I agree with the poster who stated that you shouldn't confuse ambiance with tension. Ambiance can call attention to tension (the window shutter banging in the wind can remind the character that the scary old house may be abandoned for a reason), though.

    Even a romantic scene between two madly-in-love people can have tension if there is the underlying awareness that they may not get to do this again for a while, or that one person may want something different to come from it than the other, or even if one person is worried that his or her lover is actually thinking about someone else....

    Shorter sentences are certainly useful when writing conflict oriented tension, or the kind of scene where the main character's heart is pounding. But even "slower" scenes should have some element of tension in them.
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  9. #9
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Wordwalker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    I've been told that every scene in a novel has to have some tension. But what creates that tension can vary a great deal. Some people think tension always equals conflict and high drama, and say that every scene must have conflict. Conflict is one type of tension builder, certainly, but it is not the only kind.
    A rule of thumb I like is to:
    • establish how important the stakes are, gains and/or losses -- a lot of romantic tension is getting enough sheer heat or tenderness in, and thrillers can also find ways to remind us that being caught by a killer is Not Good
    • hint at the rules of how things are done -- help the reader see that there are a certain number of rooms in the house to search, but should you rush past one room or skip the dresser because it's too obvious? nothing hurts more than a choice
    • change those rules in midstream -- it takes two-thirds the time to search half the rooms, and then you realize there's a basement...
    • go for the sense that things could go very wrong (or right) at any moment -- ringing phones can make you jump out of your skin, and anything (including phones) that make you knock something over and leave traces might be all it takes to get you killed
    Of course these seem like conflict-oriented, but they apply to anything, because they're just about what might make things worse or better. A good writer ought to be able to write a victory celebration that builds tension with how good all the well-wishing just might get, or how one ordinary morning at work is the pleasant challenge of getting a new project in line while another is a Bad Day made better by the right friends commiserating.
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  10. #10
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin ElsieTanner's Avatar
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    Thanks to everyone, really good points. Have ordered Misery from Amazon (£1.90 - bargain!), hopefully SK will inspire me.

  11. #11
    permanently suctioned to Buz's leg Putputt's Avatar
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    Something I read recently that had great tension was MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. There was a scene where the MC was inside an old house looking for clues about his grandfather's past, and it was just SO creepy. I have to admit to being a wuss, but holy hell I was creeped out.

    Looking back, I agree with Kalli about "stakes" and "ticking clock" creating suspense. In that example, there was no ticking clock, but the stakes were set with the gruesome murder of the MC's grandpa and the strange stories that grandpa had told the MC about the house. So there's a sense of danger leading up to the scene, and then it was a matter of setting the atmosphere and the question of what the hell the MC's going to find in that weird house.

    Kallithrix gave a great example with that scene in MISERY. I'd like to add the fact that King established how dangerous Annie can be before the scene, so we have an idea of what the stakes are if she catches Paul out of bed.

    Just go back and take a look at your favorite books and see how different writers create tension. This is a pretty great question as I found myself wondering the same exact thing recently, and had to look through my fav books to see how those authors did it.
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    living in the past ishtar'sgate's Avatar
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    Oh, easy. Have them trip a burglar alarm. A really loud one. That will get their hearts pumping and get them running to find what they're looking for before the alarm company alerts police or owner or both etc.

  13. #13
    Just plain Bill to you, pardner.
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    Mostly what Kallithrix said above. He's the one who understands it quite well.

    In my view, "tension" in fiction is a vague reference to something specific, and I think that specific something is the apprehension and anticipation that the reader feels.

    In your situation, how could you make the reader feel tension? A and B are sitting in a car (say) and see C leave the house.

    A: Let's go. This is our chance.
    B: Wait, wait, wait! What if he's only going down to the corner to mail a letter? He could be back in two minutes.
    A: Look, if we don't get our hands on the MacGuffin in the next two hours those bastards will slit Vera's throat, no question. He's out, this is our chance! Come on, let's go!
    B: If he catches us, it's all over. We can't take the risk!
    A: You want to wait around until he gets invited to a slumber party? We've got a chance, let's take it!
    B: Taking your chances is how we got into this mess in the first place.
    A: And now this chance will get us out. Come on!
    B: We can't risk it!
    A: To hell with you. I'm going in.

    And then once they get into the house, A searches while B keeps thinking he sees C coming back--some other guy walks down the street, they panic, thinking it's him but it's not. The postman knocks on the door with a special delivery, calls out, says he's seen Mr. C through the window, etc. etc. And the longer they are in the house, the higher the tension builds.

  14. #14
    is way off topic Dale Emery's Avatar
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    Perhaps add conflict between the MC and her sidekick. That can add distraction, confusion, delay, and jeopardy to the search.

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