Revising for Tension

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Are you putting pressure on your characters so that they’re forced to change? Do quiet characters have moments when they’re about to explode? Adding tension to a novel often means that you must deepen the characters’ intensity of emotion. Sometimes, you must even write new scenes to replace those that are just marking time. I’ll share some ideas about scenes to add, but first let’s look at ones that should be cut or condensed into passages of exposition.

Just briefly, a scene is action that’s happening in pseudo-real time. The clock ticks slowly. In exposition or summary passages, time and action get condensed. (Read my previous blog post on scene and summary if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.)

When I’m suggesting you cut scenes, I’m hoping you’ll discover that you can incorporate what happens in these scenes into other ones, or perhaps figure out a better setting, one that’s more vivid or memorable for the reader.

My husband calls this “addition by subtraction.” By removing the fluff, you create a sense of urgency. Readers keep turning the pages.

 Cut scenes that take place at kitchen tables

In the first fifty pages, it’s especially important to keep up the momentum. Find any scene in your novel set in a kitchen, living room, or office, or in a car that your hero is driving from one place to another.

  • Cut the scene.
  • Do the same for scenes that involve tea, coffee, showers, baths, and cigarettes.
  • Cut telephone calls

Weave whatever happens in those scenes into others.

Cut the history lesson

Do not feel you must provide a lot of background information. If you’ve written compelling dialogue and provided evocative details, readers can figure out what’s going on. In fact, readers like to do that. It makes them feel smart.

  • Look for places you’re giving the reader background info you think they need to know.
  • Cut those passages or move them to the middle of the book.
  • Make readers anxious for back-story before you give it to them.

At a certain point, readers will be dying to find out why the characters behave the way they do. Alternately, you may find that it works best to weave the back-story in gradually, rather than subjecting readers to an information dump.

Write new scenes to heighten the tension

If you’ve written 190,000 words, then then adding a new scene is just the opposite of what you should do. But, let’s say that your character spends an awful lot of time mulling over why life isn’t the ideal life he or she deserves. Interiority is wonderful, but “things have to happen.” See what you can discover about the character from writing scenes like these:

  • Trap your character in a confined space with the person they would most hate to see.
  • Have a hated character from the past appear.
  • Introduce a secret. Make the character keep that secret, but have an overwhelming desire to tell someone the truth.
  • Have the character make an error in judgment that has serious consequences.

tension in Year of wonders

Here’s an example from Geraldine Brooks historical novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague. Up until page 12 of the novel, the narrator has generally been giving us background and acquainting us with the village. Sure, on page 1 she takes an apple to her employer, who is devastated by his wife’s death that he’s non-responsive. However, it’s not until page 12 that “something happens.” The very last person the narrator wants to see shows up at the house and insists on having a chat.

I had entered the gate and had my back turned to the house, refastening the latch, when I heard the rustle of silk behind me. I turned suddenly, slopping milk from my bucket as I did so. Elizabeth Bradford scowled as a droplet landed on the aubergine hem of her gown.

“Clumsy!” she hissed.

And so I reencountered her much as I had last seen her more than one year earlier; sour-faced and spoiled. But the habits of a lifetime are hard-shed, and I had dropped into a curtsy without willing it, my body acting despite the firm resolve of my mind to show this woman no such deference. Typically, she did not even bother with a greeting.

“Where is Mompellion?” she demanded. “I have been rapping upon that door for a good quarter hour. Surely he cannot be so early abroad?”

I made my voice unctuously polite. “Miss Bradford,” I said, ignoring her question, “it is a great surprise, and an honor un-looked for, to see you here in our village. You left us in such haste, and so long since, that we had despaired of ever more being graced by your presence.”

These two women are at loggerheads. One has power. The other doesn’t, and she’s conditioned by propriety to curtsy. How will the narrator either escape this woman or get the upper hand? That’s what we’re eager to find out. We’ve all been cornered by obnoxious people. This makes us care more about the narrator and respect her canniness in dealing with the visitor.

Deepen the intensity of feeling

Readers are looking for how they feel about things that happen. It’s not so much what happens that’s ultimately important, despite what I said above. Readers want to observe the repercussions–the ripple effect. What readers remember is the intensity of the character’s feelings. Readers are hoping for experiences that mimic those of “real life.” As adults we might recall the day our mother threw a plate and it shattered against a wall, or we might recall the devastation of being cut from the starting lineup our senior year.

Tracking feelings means cutting deep. It means spending time with the character’s thoughts and getting to know their internal landscape as well as you do the places that character lives.

  • When attempting to deepen the intensity of feeling, don’t go overboard or resort to clichés.
  • A shrug and a glance out the window can have as powerful an impact as an insult or scream.

The excerpt from Year of Wonders shows how depth of feeling in a quiet character can deepen the reader’s connection. We empathize with characters who don’t put themselves forward, perhaps because we sense that “still waters run deep.”

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Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, and BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many other awards. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State. She has been a Writing Fellow at Arizona State University and has taught workshops on literary editing.


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