Monday 17 March 2014

Double Dipping Tension

Tension is an important part of any story. You want the problems gripping your characters to also grip your readers. But tension is not a one off thing that you can create and leave to do its job.

If tension remains at a steady state it decreases over time. If a guy is in a locked room waiting for the killer to come back and finish the job, and he waits, and waits, then he’s eventually going to stop freaking out. He might even get a little bored.

You either have to face the problem (leading to some kind of resolution) or escalate the tension in some way. But even then not all tension is created equal.

If an asteroid is going to hit the earth in a year, then that certainly needs to be addressed. People will run around preparing to brief the President and so on. If the next chapter is one month later, and then the next one another month and so on... then while that can work in terms of story structure, it won’t be a very effective way to maintain tension.

On the other hand if the asteroid is going to hit in three days, then two, then one, even though that is a similar structure it is going to be much easier to relay a sense of threat to the reader.

Urgency is just one method. Increasing stakes is another.

In most cases how the character is reacting will be a good indicator of how the reader is going to be feeling. And the easiest way to keep the character busy is with new and more terrible problems. This kind of escalation can easily get out of hand.

If the asteroid is going to hit in a year, then at six months Russia invades Alaska, then with three months to go a zombie epidemic breaks out, then while tension will certainly be running high, it could also be seen as getting quite silly.

Not that silly won’t sell. Most blockbuster thrillers have a great big dose of silly that will defy all common sense, but there are a lot of people who like that sort of silly, and once you get caught up in it you can quite easily leave disbelief (and your brain) at the door.

These are all methods that can work, but another way to keep the level of tension nice and high is to double dip.

If Man A holds a gun to Man B’s head and asks him where the money is, then there is tension there. Man B manages to assure Man A he has no idea what happened to the money and Man A lowers the gun, and the tension drops. But then Man B says the wrong thing and the gun comes up again. What happens to the tension?

Not only does it return, but it comes back stronger as the surge of adrenalin shoots back up. The dip in tension allows for a push into a higher level of tension without having to bring in a new set of problems or characters.

This double dipping isn’t just for thrillers, it will work for any scene that involves conflict. What happens in a lot cases, though, is that the tension is raised, then dropped, and then the scene or chapter ends; because it feels like a good place for an pause.

This isn’t a good place to end a scene.

Far better for everyone to think the asteroid has been diverted from its course and then have someone point at the radar and say, “Hey guys, what’s that second blip?”

Letting the reader see a little light through the door before slamming it their face can be as effective as piling on more and more problems, and it is often much more sustainable. 

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Sarah Allen said...

George is one of the greatest story tellers of all time :)

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Double dipping tension - I like that idea.
Hard to build tension over a long span of time. I really crammed things into a short span with my last book to create the urgency.
Russia invades and then there are zombies? Don't laugh, I bet someone has considered that!

Sher A. Hart said...

So... if our chickens made it safe into their coop and we got the door shut, it would have been a better cliffhanger if we realized then that only 10 chickens were inside. With such good advice, you must be a good egg! Ah-oh. I already posted the rest of the story.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Excellent advice, Mood. Really like bringing up the stakes with the double dipping method!

mooderino said...

@Sarah - gotta love George.

@Alex - it's probably already being made into a SyFy movie as we speak.

@Sher - eggsactly.

@Michael - great to see you back! Missed you.

Chemist Ken said...

Great suggestion. I always need to be on the lookout for ways of keeping the tension up during my stories. I always forget the reader doesn't know everything I know.

Denise Covey said...

I like the idea of double dipping here. Great suggestions as always.

mooderino said...

@Ken - very true, we always know what's going on, easy to assume the reader does too.

Anonymous said...

I never heard double dipping used in writing before, but I see your point and like it.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman said...

Wish I had read this BEFORE I finished my final revision. Ramping up the tension was one of my goals.
Kathy @ Swagger Writers

Unknown said...

Finding the correct balance of tension sounds difficult.

LD Masterson said...

I was feeling pretty good about keeping my tension up as I read this until you mentioned not ending a scene or chapter during the dip. Great tip. Thanks.

Lydia Kang said...

Too much is just too much. Tension is important, but it can be frustrating when it's used without restraint!

mooderino said...

@Medeia - made sense at the time.

@Kathy - better late than never?

@Lilith - it is, it's very hard.

@LD - yvw

@Lydia - some genres can get away with it, but it does get quite silly after a while.

Elise Fallson said...

This is really obvious with some tv series that end each episode on a tense scene or leave something unresolved in the background, it's what keeps me wanting and waiting to see the next episode. I try to keep that in mind when I write my chapters but in some places I fail miserably.... this writing thing is kinda hard. ;)

mooderino said...

@Elise - now you tell me.

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