“Seven Ways to Increase Tension in Your Scenes” by Marianne Hering

I’ve written more than thirty adventure books.

And I still find that building tension in each scene is as difficult as losing weight. You think you have a “formula” and then BOOM! boringness creeps in, saturating your book in bloated prose.

Credit: Photo by James Allen on Unsplash

Here are seven things I look at to make sure my chapters are paced well and compelling:

1. “In a good play, everyone is in the right.” —Friedrich Hebbel. I’d rewrite this to say in every good scene, everyone is right. Consider your conflict between characters. Is it balanced? Is your protagonist pitted against characters who have equally compelling arguments? Is the power struggle real?

Sometimes my secondary characters are nice, and I have trouble coming up with conflicts that seem real. Usually I have to revamp my secondary characters so that they have more obvious flaws or pointed personality traits, and then can challenge my protagonist in a more compelling manner.

2. Do I need to “tell” and not “show” in this passage? The mantra “show, don’t tell” has its limits. Do you need to cut unnecessary detail and sometimes throw in a line or two of narrative summary to quickly move past tedious or unfocused material? 

For example, you may want to summarize a flashback instead of going into great detail, depending on how important it is. C. S. Lewis often had a line or two of narrative summary; other times there were long stretches of narrative. “It was a great sea-battle,” etc. That way he could focus on the internal struggles of the children rather than on the battle sequences. I need to do that often, shrinking some of the action so that I’m not overshadowing the conflicts of my protagonist be they internal or external.

3. Do I have too many secondary characters? Can I cut some and streamline the story? In historical fiction especially, I want to stick to the facts, but oftentimes the facts are cumbersome and include too many people. So I make one character a composite to represent many characters and save a lot of space with too much detail.

4. Is every scene related to my character’s quest or goal? I’ve been editing a client’s story where the character is piddling around saving all sorts of people, but it’s not focused on the protagonist’s main goal of resolving his anger at God. I cut material that doesn’t move the character toward his or her main goal. Some of the scenes I’m cutting are charming, but they don’t focus on the protagonist’s quest.

5. Am I tired? Sometimes I write poorly when I’m tired and distracted. So taking a break and coming back to a project gives me fresh ideas and I can fix it quickly once I’ve distanced myself from it.

6. Am I trying to do too much with one scene. I often get multiple goals tangled in one scene. Sometimes I restart and unfold the scene adding characters one-by-one. For example, instead of having my protagonist walk into a crowded room with a party going on, she will meet someone at the door and have a conversation, then be distracted by someone inside the room, and I’ll then move to that scene and have them huddled in the kitchen alone. In that way the initial party scene becomes two different scenes.

7. If I’m still having problems with creating tension, I then ask myself if I have the best POV. I tend to lean toward limited third, but sometimes I get in a bind. One project I’m working on now may have to be redone in an omniscient POV so I can get inside my secondary character’s heads and create tension that way. If you’re already in an omniscient POV, then consider switching the lens if your chapters are dragging.

How about you? Do you ever feel as if your scenes lack tension? How do you resolve that?

Look for Marianne’s December post about finding your own errors in your work. Warning: there WILL be a test!

Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. To schedule a free 30-minute children’s book coaching call, email HeLovesMeBooks@gmail.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

6 thoughts on ““Seven Ways to Increase Tension in Your Scenes” by Marianne Hering

  1. Marianne, I’m printing out these tips and putting them in my writer’s journal for my current fiction WIP. This is so helpful…can’t wait for your next post…GULP. A test?!

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