Tense Scenes

Lately, I’ve had to explain many times how an author has a responsibility to their readers to create tension in scenes leading up to a defining moment. One and all, these authors exclaim that their readers understand how they write and accept this “fault” of theirs, if they even consider it is a fault.

First, let me explain something. You are being arrogant. You are assuming your fans are sticking around when your book has the same length sentences and monotonous style from page to page.

Then I’ll ask how many sales you’ve had over the last several months.

That one can be a lot embarrassing, if you’ve seen a decline in sales, or if your perfectly delivered masterpiece has yet to sell even one copy.

Let’s look at what it takes to create tension in a book.

I will make one thing clear first, though. All books have tense moments. These are the paragraphs or pages leading up to a climatic or sub-climatic point. In order to keep the reader turning the pages and panting to find out just what is about to happen, you need to grab the reader by the throat with your perfectly crafted prose that is in shorter and shorter sentences and never release them until the moment has passed and it’s all smooth sailing again.

How does one go about that? We’ll look at a couple of examples.

Example 1:

A loud bang outside startled John, after folding the newspaper and setting it beside him on the sofa, he strolled to the front window and peered through it. Seeing nothing, he checked the kitchen and ensured their dogs weren’t acting strangely; happy all seemed in order, he glanced at the microwave’s clock and frowned, his family was very late. He ran outside and turned in an circle, his anger growing by the second that his wife hadn’t bothered to call and let him know she was going to be late. John ran along the street and looked for any sign that she’d stopped at a neighbor’s house and was talking, even though she knew that his edict was that she come straight home from the grocery store. He stopped on the street corner and glanced in both directions, his thoughts were on his family on where they were and when he could expect them. Not for one moment did he think there was anything to worry about; they’d had a system in place for years. Even those mysterious aircraft flying low overhead didn’t bother him, the military would do their job and everyone could go on with their lives.

Asleep yet? Did you realize you were supposed to deduce the big action scene is about to start?

The answers are more than likely yes and really?

Let’s look at this scene from a different angle…

Example 2:

An explosive bang startled John. He threw the newspaper he’d been reading aside and leapt to his feet. Worry raced through him. His wife and three-year-old twins weren’t back from the store yet. Stumbling over toys and smacking his shin against a table, he plowed through all obstacles and shoved the curtains aside.

“What’s going on?” John peered at the street.

Nothing appeared to be wrong. A couple of neighbors came out of their houses and looked around. They waved at him.

“Where is Linda?”

His worry grew worse. His wife was an angel about letting him know if she was going to be late. This wasn’t like her at all. Yanking the door open, he ran to the end of the driveway. The rest of his neighborhood was peaceful. Those who had come outside had returned to their warm homes. They were probably avoiding the snow storm, now just beginning.

“This feels wrong.”

It was too calm, too peaceful. Hurrying along the sidewalk, glancing in all directions, John searched for the gray minivan he and Linda had bought when they discovered they’d soon have two babies instead of one. He stopped on the corner and stared toward the east.

There was no sign of anything truly off. What looked like a cloud rose up in the distance.

Is that were the store is?

Jets streaked past overhead. He jerked his head toward the cloud covered sky. What was the military doing out on a Sunday?

“I’m going to look for Linda and the kids.”

Running back to his house, he jumped into his pickup and turned over the engine. Once the truck was in gear, he backed out. Dropping the transmission into gear, he spun his tires and raced toward where that cloud of smoke was now black with flames jetting out of it.

The differences between these examples are extraordinary. The first is boring, almost mundane. The reader might deduce that John is a bit of a hard man, one who has expectations and doesn’t tolerate anyone going against them. He seems almost bored with what’s happening outside his home.

The second example ramps up the action. Strong verbs drag the reader into a changing tempo. You care about this man, who is worried about his family. A sense of impending doom comes throughout the whole scene.

This is how you create tension in your story. You drag the reader from their comfortable zone and thrust them into the moment. They feel the same anxiety that John does. They’re expecting trouble to come at any moment. Shorter sentences bereft of extreme description will assist you in getting your reader more interested in your story.


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