Escalating the Tension in Your Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Short Skirt Long Jacket by Cake)

What’s up, world?

I’m very close to finishing the 1.5 draft of my [first novel of a trilogy/first third of a very long novel]. I have one chapter left to rewrite and revamp – the climactic finale of act one of my story.

As I’m reading through the last few chapters and liking the pacing now that I’ve cut this piece down from over 100,000 words to under 50,000 , I’ve realized a little something about tension that I wanted to share with you all.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had difficulties editing your first draft, and a large part of that is because it’s hard for you to imagine the story as being anything other than what it is – or, in words that actually make sense, you’ve written a story that moves forward in a certain plot, and it’s hard for you to put new scenes in because ‘that didn’t happen in my story’.

It’s like once I start writing something, I find a path for it, and sometimes that path takes a few twists and turns, but it usually goes about where I expect it to. And so when I’m considering new scenes to add in, and I say “What if Character X did this thing in this chapter instead of that thing?”, my immediate response to myself is, “Well, no, because that’s not what I wrote the first time – and therefore that’s not what Character X would do.”

I just kind of assumed that what comes to mind when I’m writing my first draft is what my characters would actually do, and anything that comes later is just me trying to force them to take actions that aren’t in their character, which is my biggest writing pet peeve.

The thing is, that’s not even close to true. Characters are just as variable as people in reacting to situations – what happened in the scene just before could completely change the way in which someone is equipped to deal with a new development, and that’s still entirely in their character. So I’ve been trying to dismantle that “Oh, that character would never do that” mentality and replace it with a “Okay, if that character were to do that, how would that make sense under that character? What would need to happen for them to make that decision?”

And I have to say, it’s working pretty well. In my first draft, a lot of my drama was subplot drama, character arcs interacting as my characters developed alongside one another. Now, it seems like the drama is more than that – in some cases it fits into the main plot, in others it just ratchets up the tension between either characters and situations or characters and other characters. It feels both genuine and fast-paced, and that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to go for with this rewrite.

Which brings me to the main point – and if you’re perceptive, you’ve noticed by now that I always seem to waste the first 500 words or so in a long-winded introduction to my topic. In your second draft, when rewriting scenes, adding in scenes, deleting scenes, all that good stuff, you should be looking for character decisions that feel like they’re in character but also feel like they’re pushing things forward, kicking up the tension, making the reader turn the pages faster.

I love the feeling of the pace in this project because it starts off with this kinda dumb drama where the main characters squabble a little bit; and then we learn about some terrifying backstory stuff that makes those squabbles seem minor in comparison; and then there are people fistfighting and shouting matches and really cruel comments that make you wonder if these characters will even stay friends; and then you have the moments of actual, permanent bodily harm coming to some of these characters, making you feel like they’re not insulated from danger; and the entire time the main plot is slowly developing toward something terrifying at the end that (hopefully) should have the reader shaking their laptop by the last pages.

That could only happen because of the wonderful metamorphosis that is this 1.5 draft – keeping the good, heart-pounding chapters from my first draft, adding in some new things to make the pace even snappier, and bundling it all together to make it cohesive and interesting.

So my advice to you is this: figure out first what might happen, then narrow it down to what could happen based on the parameters of the character and the situation. Then take a look at everything in that list and ask, “What do I want to happen? What is likely to happen? And what will make the story even more engaging to a reader?”

That’s all I’ve got. Happy Friday!

Yours, replaying Wind Waker for the umpteenth time,

-R.R. Buck

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