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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nail-Biting Tension

You know what’s it like. You’re reading a book on the edge of your seat. No bathroom break, no sir and you hope you don’t have to call for a catheter. Whatever happens, people better get ready to take care of it, because no way are you leaving this story. The tension in your shoulders is so tight, you can feel your muscles throb. Yet you turn the pages. Oh, my word, what will happen? How can the hero escape? How can he stay alive? Tension like that, my friends, is what you want to read. And it is, most assuredly, what you want to write. But how?

For me, it’s all in knowing how to crank it up. Here is a list to help:

The law of three-I find this very useful when writing suspense. To me, it means two separate things.

First, when writing a suspense or thriller (or any fiction, really) raise the stakes three times. You take a bad situation and make it worse. Then, just when you think how much worse could it be, kick it up one more notch. But it can’t happen all at the same time. That’s where pacing comes into play (stay tuned). For example (from Coming to Climax, releasing September 5th): Margaret is going back to Climax for the first time in twenty-plus years to resolve her argument with her niece. She doesn’t know how she’ll ever face Blue, who married her sister on the rebound all those years ago. Margaret worries and frets, even orders three little bottles of Scotch on the plane. Can she pull it off and save face (the stakes)? Their meeting will be tense. But what if…you then find out Blue’s adopted daughter is really Margaret’s child? Will Blue forgive her and will she alienate Caroline forever? The stakes are raised again. But what if…the crimes in the town have something to do with those she loves and may lead to her death, or worse, Blue and Carolina getting killed? The stakes are raised again. Now you’re ready to feed in the tension by hitting the hot buttons, her stakes. Each time, the tension escalates.

Now thanks to Margie Lawson, think of the repetition of three items. By repeating words or phrases in a work, it brings emphasis or punch to the segment. That will be demonstrated at the end of this article.

Pacing and sentence structure – Don’t use long flowery sentences when in the middle of a tense scene. Think in shorthand and see the scene through the eyes of the person who has the POV. You’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting in snippets of sensation. Actions are choppy and hurried.

Reappearing images, phrases and sentences - One technique that pulls your book together and gives you a gotcha moment is to introduce something early in the text and then repeat it later with a twist. This could be a scene in a calm location, such as a thinking place or the security of one’s home. Later the same scene is colored with the ominous presence of the villain who seeks to kill the hero. Like Chef Emeril says, “kick it up a notch.” Similarly you can use a phrase or object that was used in an early violent or tense-filled scene and reintroduce it much later in another such scene, but this time involving a main character or the hero himself. For instance, in Nick of Time, the sequel to Coming to Climax, the book opens with two evil characters trapping a woman in a net they set up to capture her deep in the forest. One of the characters says. “Easier than trapping the Easter bunny.” Much later in the book, a prominent secondary character is trying to get away, and is also caught in a net. The same evil character says. ““Easy trapping, but you ain’t no Easter Bunny.” See? Gotcha’!

Atmosphere and Setting-I talked about this earlier when I explained about the calm scene becoming the violent one later. That’s setting. Use everything, the weather, the lighting, the location. For instance, my really threatening scenes in the Climax books normally take place in the deep forest with low lighting and obstacles to running, in abandoned buildings, even around a graveyard. Take time to describe the scenery. Paint a word picture so the reader can feel the dark mood and the somber tone.

Now, see if you can spot some of my techniques in this snippet (now unedited) from Nick of Time, coming in January 2012:

The guy vaulted at him, grabbing his shirt. Luke jerked loose, the fabric ripping. He lunged for the door. The man’s hands, talons, grabbed his shirt. Exerting unearthed power, Luke wrenched free and ran.
Ran from the trailer, primed for evasion. Ran down the path, terrified of capture. Ran like the hunted, straining to survive.
He darted into the woods, his breath coming in ragged gulps, his mind racing like an over-wound toy. The shadowed forest of a slowly setting sun dotted his view with dark patches of hopelessness. Run for escape. Run to the dark. The man won’t see me there.
Hiding behind a dense thatch of trees, he heard nothing. Maybe I lost him. He stayed silent, trying to calm his heaving chest. Maybe he left. His heart whammed against his ribcage, pounding anger at his foolishness. Where did he come from? His mind slapped him, laughing at his ignorance. He should have known.
I hope my insights will help someone on her quest to writing success. And for the reader, now you understand a bit about what goes into that novel.
Bobbye Terry writes mystery/suspense, romance, fantasies and dystopian fiction. The Marriage Murders, the sequel to Buried in Briny Bay, is slated for release on July 4th. Bobbye and Linda Campbell, writing as Terry Campbell, also have a new cozy mystery short story collection, Slam Sisters of Serendipity. Kenada, a “Ladies of the Chronicles” novelette in the Cash Chronicles series releases in just a few weeks.  For more about Bobbye, visit her at,  and


Sandy said...

Bobbye, you're definitely my kind of author.

Fran Lee said...

On my way over to check out your site.

Amber Skyze said...

Great post! Going to check out your site.

Stormy Knight said...

Thanks, folks, for dropping by. I hope you tru out one of my mystery books. The ones right now are cozy, humerous books. But Coming to Climax (coming in September), which stillhas a lot of humor, also has some very tense moments.

Linda Andrews said...

Great post and wonderful example--definitely a page turner there. I think I'll put some of it to use write away. For the series of three--are those through the whole book or each scene?

Janice said...

Great post. I was on the edge of my seat just reading your post.


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