Creating Tension in Writing

One thing that can really make or break a piece of fiction (regardless of format) is the tension. It’s often is missing when something goes horribly wrong and (for me at least) it was the what was seriously wrong with the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. So, I thought I would throw together a few important things to consider in writing and building tension. A warning if you are sensitive to talking about sex, this is going to be an R-rated blog.


1. Building Anticipation

Tension in storytelling is a lot like really good sex. It’s really rare to have great sex that is just the, let’s stick it in variety. Instead, like fiction, there is teasing and touch and playing with the body (reader). You reveal just a little bit at a time, building anticipation and pleasure until your partner (reader) absolutely needs to go all in. You take your time, but you move with a kind flow and rhythm, you let things rise and then pull back, rise and then pull back and then there is a point in your story where it is, indeed time for full steam ahead and you go for it.

If you think about it, that’s what a master of storytelling does. They give you glimpses and foreshadowing of what’s to come. The set the frame of your mind and they control the narrative. This is particularly important in genres like horror. An example of really effective tension building is the film Paranormal activity.

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Sorry… but it’s been quite long enough for spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film you can always leave now and come back later…

The great thing about this film is how each night is an event that ramps up the tension a little. Virtually no scene is wasted and there is a great interplay between what the characters experiencing each night, and then reliving it through the following day. Each day the tension builds just a little, until the shit hits the fan in the last fifteen minutes of the film.

The story itself offers almost nothing unique. It’s found footage, it’s dealing with a lineage demon, and of course ultimately there is a possession. But the writer and filmmakers give you just enough in each scene to slowly and gradually ramp up the tension and the creep factor. You aren’t bludgeoned over the head with something outrageous the moment it begins. Instead in the first few minutes of the film, you wonder to yourself where this could possibly get creepy. Half-way through the film, you can feel your heart rate increase every time you get some of the bedtime footage and ultimately the payoff is great. But without the tension, this film would have been slow and boring.

2. Framing and Foreshadowing

But what about films or books that have a lot of downtime, that take a bit of world building to get to that good tension building?

Jurassic Park is an excellent example.

Head over to YouTube for a moment and watch this scene if you aren’t familiar.

The scene itself foreshadows what’s coming. The first thing you see after the credits is something rustling through the trees. Just like later when the T-rex makes it’s first deadly appearance. In this scene you see the creature watching the man walk on top of the kennel (shipping container, whatever you call it) as they try to move the Raptor into position. The key to this scene, the great foreshadowing it does, is that you have dozens of men with guns, you have a number of precautions taken to prevent the dinosaur from hurting anyone, and yet, still, ‘life finds a way’ and things go horribly wrong. Notice the kinds of camera angels, the key dialogue, the set design, lighting, and everything else. All of it creates this perfect tension where you just know something is about to go wrong.

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After this scene it takes some time to assemble the characters and get them all in the right place for the real story to begin. Mixed in there you have the science behind the story, the introduction to the wonders and beauty of the park itself and how the characters fall in love with the idea of meeting real dinosaurs. But in the back of your mind, that opening always looms, all that foreshadowing, frames your experience. And each piece of dialogue seeks to serve a contrast between wonder and terror.

If you know you are going to have a slow build, framing something big in the beginning can be a powerful way to start the tension rolling while giving the reader something to think about. Speaking of which…

3. Sustaining the Tension (Give them something to think about)

One thing that I think many films and books struggle with is sustaining tension. One way to do that is, even in moments where this is no apparent tension in place, creating tension can be successfully done by leaving unanswered questions or creating a state if disequilibrium for the characters. Did you leave a character in real serious mortal danger at the end of a chapter? Did you drop a philosophical bomb on your audience and leave them pondering it while you diverge into another character or area of the book?

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This happens a lot in books like The Light Bringer Series by Brent weeks. In moments where there won’t be tension and he has to get a character from point A to B, he often leaves off the previous chapter with some large revelation, some grand conflict, or some serious question that the character must address. This makes your reader turn that page, even if the current chapter isn’t as intense. Why? Because you’ve instilled a kind of artificial anxiety in your reader and that makes them want to know just what the hell happens.

This is actually why, despite some readers hating cliffhangers… I still use them all the time. All of my favorite books and series utilize these tools and it’s one of the reasons I love them. A good story keeps you on edge, keeps you anticipating all the time… but…

4. Never give them everything they want.

Okay, maybe not never, but if you always keep things predicable and similar, if the character always get’s out of danger, or their assumptions are confirmed, your boring the hell out of your reader and probably out of yourself writing it.

Cliffhangers don’t have to resolve in ways we might expect. You might leave your character surrounded by what they think is an enemy, but maybe they are allies in disguise? Maybe they are an enemy but they can’t recognize the main character? The point is, if you always use cliffhangers in the same way, if you foreshadow too much and make things obvious, it will kill the tension.

Tension is about keeping the reader on their toes, about giving them another reason to turn the page. But, if you use too much tension you also risk overwhelming your reader. Find the flow or rhythm, let your pages breath a little, not everything has to be constantly tense.

What are your favorite ways of building tension? What books do you think do it best? Comment and let me know.

Your book idea probably isn’t original, here’s why that doesn’t matter.

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My book series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration are about giant walking cities in a dystopian future. When I first started writing about this idea, I thought I was the most original person in the world. Arrogant as hell right? It’s okay, go on and laugh at me. I completely understand. I laugh at myself all the time now.

You know what made it really funny? I started writing this series in 2011, thinking, wow, no one has ever thought of an idea quite like this before. I was completely oblivious to the award-winning and very wonderful books by Philip Reeve who wrote the series ‘The Mortal Engines’, which is coming out in film form this year. When I discovered this two years ago, it made my heart ache a little and it certainly humbled me. But I loved my characters so much that I decided to resume writing.

Then, I had to laugh some more when earlier this year, this article came out. Imagine a World of Walking Cities and references a man who came up with the idea in 1964, twenty years before I was even born.

But here’s the thing. It actually doesn’t matter. Now I want to note here, that as a University Professor, plagiarism is wrong and immoral, and you should never ever steal the work of another human being. But, when it comes to grand ideas, overarching themes and concepts, there is, and has always been a lot of borrowing going on. Even Ursula K LeGuin (who is arguably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century) grappled with this in her article Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion

A great example of this is the sci-fi novel Dune vs Star Wars. Now Dune was published in 1965 and George Lucas did admit that the text heavily influenced him. In fact, here’s a short YouTube video, on just how much Star Wars pulled from Dune (Hint: It’s a lot… like a lot.)

But, are Dune and Star Wars the same thing? Certainly not. Yes, a lot of borrowing went on, but the Universes of each story are very different and explored different questions. (Star Wars Fans don’t hate me but I think Dune is the superior of the two).

Similarly is there anything super unique about a boy going through a Wizarding school? No of course not, that theme has been done to death, but JK Rowling made it her own and built a unique and interesting world and the characters that go with it.

So, does your story share common elements with another? So what if it does. Here is a short list of the things that actually matter in crafting a good story.

  1. You have taken a concept and played with it in a unique way 

What makes a story a part of a fantasy genre? Things like magic, warriors, rogues, special objects or locations? Fantasy might be the genre with the most overlap because some of it’s core characteristics require that overlap. But what makes a series like the King Killer Chronicles  or Mistborn standout? Both these use magic systems, but both have taken the concept of magic and added some interesting and unique elements to it. In return, the goals and experiences of the characters are necessarily also unique.

For example, Allomancy (one of the three systems of magic from Mistborn) has the magic wielders consuming and then using certain metals for their powers. Some people can burn certain metals, and others cannot, while some people can burn all the metals. This unique form of magic will necessitate a specific kind of problem-solving and character conflicts. For example, two Mistborn (people who can burn all the metals) fight with the knowledge that each opponent probably has a limited supply of each metal. This creates certain plot points and influences thinking in each character.

Science Fiction might be the genre that has the most arena of play and thus allow for all kinds of variation. Do you have aliens? AI? Superhumans? Genetic Engineering? Alternative history? It’s a very broad genre and there are endless things to explore.

So for example in my series, yes there are giant migrating cities (they are really more moving mountains because of their size) but you also have telepathy, artificial intelligence, life-extension, superstorms and a variety of undead creatures called ‘Recycled’. All of these various elements work together to create a unique world.

By themselves, none of those elements are unique and can be found in a hundred different science fiction novels.

Make your world unique and colorful. Small changes to world building can create some really interesting results. Why? Because cultures and worlds are holistic. A change in a political sphere will change economics, kinship, religion, gender, class, ect. Trust me on this, I’m an anthropologist and we see it all the time. A small change in your world building can create some pretty significant results.

2. Are your characters unique or can they have a unique experience? 

Certainly, if the universe you are writing in is unique then unique character experiences are too difficult to manage. But what if you write something like romance or thrillers that are limited to the current reality in which we reside?

Your characters are your strength regardless of the genre. Ultimately, what people are reading your book for is the characters. If they don’t give a shit about your characters, then they aren’t going to keep reading. Empathy with characters is really important. Check out this YouTube Video on this topic for more.

But beyond empathy what makes your characters unique? Or perhaps their particular interactions are unique. What makes your characters one of a kind and unforgettable? Are they funny? Do they have an interesting internal struggle? Do they have a really interesting talent or fatal flaw? Maybe they have all of these things? A unique and/or interesting character will change the story for the better.

Think of it this way. If you put a character in a situation where someone tries to run them off a road in an act of road rage, not all characters (or people) are going to behave equally right? How they interact with a stressful situation can tell a lot about whether your character is interesting or not. And, life is pretty stressful, even without an evil robot from the 29th century coming to kill you.

3. What’s the change agent?

It’s not true that all characters change. In fact, having a character stay the same while the rest of the world changes around them, can also be a fascinating story element. One thing that makes a story unique is whatever is causing the change.

It could be as simple as that new woman in the characters life, or perhaps someone stole their wallet and the next they know, they end up in a parallel universe where humans are extinct and ruled by a telepath race of snails… sorry I go on tangents a lot in real life too haha.

The point is though, what is causing things to change? Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about how most of the time, he likes to put a character in a particular situation and see if they can work their way out of it. So, in what ways would your character solve their issue? Or could they even? Maybe the whole point of your story is that they can’t solve anything and they are a bumbling idiot and it’s sheer luck that gets them through. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams played with this a lot. The results are pretty comedic.

4. At the end of the day, it’s about telling a compelling story, even if many of your elements have been done to death. 

So, to summarize it doesn’t matter if elements of your story have been done to death. I mean… time travel right? How many books and movies have explored that? But think of the ones you enjoy, what made you love them?

It is all about owning your story, about taking those old ideas and putting a fresh spin on them, that’s how you tell a great story. Consider some of these elements if you ever feel stuck or if your beta readers tell you they were bored.

Never forget, it’s okay to give up on a story if it’s not working. Sometimes putting something aside will make room for something even better. Life is too short to bang your head against the wall. If you aren’t excited about your story, the reader probably won’t be either.

Be A Better Writer? Some Resources and Tips to help you in your craft.

Like anything else, writing is a skill, one that must be cultivated and developed.writing-1209121_960_720

It is certainly true there are some writers who are born geniuses who probably came out of the womb with a pen in hand ready to write their first lines, but that’s not me.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and learning and writing some more. I had the advantage of taking a few courses in college-level creative writing, but not everyone has that opportunity or experience. So here below I wanted to provide some tips and some resources about some of the things I have learned that have helped me along the way. There are a probably 1000 other blogs and a 1000 other books that do this (I am going to suggest some too), but I hope that some of what’s here is helpful to those of you reading this.

Resources are at the bottom.

1. Read a lot. But read like a writer, not like a reader.

It’s pretty common advice. Read lots and lots of books and short stories in your genre and outside your genre. Get off social media and actually read, or listen to audiobooks during your commute, but for the love of god read! Yes, this is essential, no exceptions. If you can’t read consistantly you cannot be a good writer.

But there’s another level to this that isn’t talked about quite as often. You aren’t just reading as a fan. What’s important is that you are reading as a writer. What does it mean to read as a writer? It means to read and once in a while stop and reflect. 

Didn’t like that particular passage? Stop right there. Why didn’t you like it? Think about it deeply. What didn’t work? Was it poorly worded? Did it mess with the flow of the plot? Dig deep and think about it. Part of learning to be a better writer is exploring what doesn’t work. It’s actually helpful to read stuff that sucks once in a while.

Loved a particular passage? Stop right there. Why was the line or passage powerful? What about it struck you? Did that line make you feel a connection to the character? Why did that work at that particular? I call these passages juicy morsels and always look for the ‘recipe’ for how they are crafted.

Are you bored with reading this book? Are you considering putting it down? Again, why? You might not always be able to put your finger on it, but there are powerful lessons if you can.

If you start doing this with every book you read, over time you will build up a solid idea of what makes writing potent and powerful and what makes it terrible. You can even do this with books you love that you’ve read before. Which passages are your favorite or least favorite, why?

A quick note here:

No, you don’t have to keep all of this shit in your head as your writing. Write and reflect, write and reflect and yes, you should do more writing and reflecting. No professional athlete ever became that way by reading about technique over and over again. They watch others play, and yes they might read, but they go out there and experiment with these things and find out what feels good to them and what works and what doesn’t. All of my thoughts here are just that, things for you to consider and try, if they don’t work discard them. I am just sharing with you what has helped me on my writing journey.

Which leads me to my next bit of advice:

2. Play play play

Why are you writing again? Seriously, think about it. Why are you writing? You like it, that’s why. If you don’t like it, stop. No one is making you write that novel. Do it because it’s fun and you enjoy it.

But here’s the other thing, experimentation is important. When I was learning guitar, I tried many different styles of music. Why? Well first because my teacher insisted, but then I started to realize that exploration made me better. It helped me to understand the things I favored in a new way. If you are a sculpter and you only ever use clay, how do you know what’s possible in other mediums?

Do you only like to read and write science fiction? Well, have you tried to write something else? Try writing a short-story in historical fiction, take a flash fiction workshop, read and write some horror, or try some romance on for size. Why? Because it will make you a better writer and you might learn something about yourself and your writing you didn’t know before. Hell, try to write some spoken word or lyrical poetry. Those things are really hard and if you can do them half effectively then you will have expanded your skill set and learned more about your own style.

Have fun, play and explore, remember to keep the joy of writing on your mind, because sometimes it is tedious. When it is, try something new or explore. Mix it up, people!

3. A large portion of what you write is going to be garbage

Seriously, accept this. Honesty about your own work is a really powerful tool. Notice I said honestly and not being overly critical.

How many times does a baseball player strike out, or hit fouls? How many hours do they spend in batting practice or batting cages? How many times do they swing and miss? Do you honestly believe that writing is any different? 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing garbage. There is nothing wrong with looking at those 5 pages you forced out of your brain for the last hour and saying, damn this sucks and deleting it. You have not lost anything by doing this! 

Shitty writing is part of the process. My first published book, Mimi of the Nowhere, was my fourth attempt at a book. The first 2 are complete garbage and the 3rd one, Upon Stilted Cities, required a lot of reworking to make it what it is today. They will never see the light of day. I’ve probably written several dozen short stories that are total shit. I would go so far as to say that a quarter of what I write is absolutely terrible.

And so what if it is? Does that mean I am wasting a quarter of my time? Hell no! The more bad writing you do, the quicker you get to the good stuff, that stuff that works, the stuff that makes readers root for your characters or cringe when something awful happens to them.

A pity party doesn’t help anyone and definitely doesn’t help you become a better writer. Give yourself permission to write garbage, to look at the page and laugh because it’s so terrible. I cannot tell you how freeing it was the day I finally accepted this.

4. Routine is really powerful, so are deadlines and goals. 

I belong to a Facebook Group called My 500 Words. It’s a group that seeks to get you to write at least 500 words a day every single day for at least 31 days. Why? To build a habit, to make writing a serious routine. It was not until I started building a writing routine that anything started to happen.

Here is where you are thinking, but I don’t have time for this? I work full time, or I am a parent, or I have other obligations. Sorry to blunt, but, bullshit. What you are saying when you make excuses is that writing isn’t that important to you right now. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s not a priority that’s fine, no judgment here sometimes life doesn’t allow for writing to be a priority. Believe me, I understand that more than you can know.

Otherwise though, suck it up and sit at that chair, cause this shit doesn’t happen by itself. Excuses are like assholes, everyone has one. Besides, someone usually says to me they don’t have time right now, after telling me how they just binged this amazing show on Netflix or played through this video game. If you want to write, you’re gonna have to cut some of that TV and gaming time out (again this was hard for me to accept at first too.)

When you’re ready to make writing a priority, do so. No one says you have to dedicate your free time to writing. Do it because you want to because that story is burning in the back of your mind and wants to come to life on a page. Prioritize writing because you love it, not because you feel like you have to. Writing can be a powerful act of creation and joy. If you create a writing routine, you can bring your dream of being a writer to life.

The last thing I want to add here is that setting deadlines is really helpful. Events like NaNoWriMo can be really helpful because it is a community of people who set a deadline and a goal. For me it was setting dates with an editor. This has proven to make sure that I am constantly working on something or else I will have to start staying up all night to finish. I cannot tell you how helpful that’s been for me.

Oh one more thing. Sitting there and telling yourself that your not good enough or that you suck, or that you will never be published isn’t useful at all. Just remember, it’s a skill, like everything else. You can do this. 

5. Resources

Note: No one is paying me for any of these recommendations (Though I will happily take a check if someone wants to give me one) These are all things I found sincerely useful in my writing journey.

When it comes to these resources I do not recommend binging these. No, you should not watch an entire YouTube channel on writing in one day! (You should be writing dammit!) Take your time, spend 10-30 minutes at once. Let your brain absorb these ideas and these thoughts so that they are in your subconscious while you are writing. I am a college professor, and what I can tell you is that it takes time to absorb no ideas and concepts. Cramming is only good for the short term, and if you truly want to be a writer, you’re in it for the long game. 

YouTube Channels for Writing
Just Write (Episodes Focus on what works and doesn’t in writing)

NerdWriter (Episodes on writing and critiques of what doesn’t work)

Jenna Moreci (A very helpful channel about Writing, Editing, Marketing and all things Writing)

Hello, Future Me (Focuses on particular Writing Elements such as villains, systems of magic and other key pieces) I particularly recommend the episode on Hard Magic Systems for the Fantasy Writers out there. If you are writing fantasy you may also want to consider Brandon Sanderson’s blog on Laws of Magic

Books on Writing That I found helpful: 

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

For me, this was one of the most helpful books. It isn’t just about editing, in fact, I would argue that it is a critical look about what works in writing and what doesn’t. I can’t recommend this book enough.

On Writing

A lot of people don’t like Stephen King, that’s fine. But what is impossible to deny is that he consistently writes novels that sell millions of books. There is a reason for that, I have spent many hours critically reading Kings work and that’s largely because of this powerful book on what it means to be a writer. I highly recommend it.

Write Good Or Die 

This is a book that is filled with tips and advice on writing that will help you improve your craft. Again, another one I thought was very useful.

Grammar for Fiction Writers 

Yes, we all need reminders about grammar, unless of course, you are an editor already. This book is really helpful

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose

Another good one for thinking about the flow of your writing and how to craft better sentences and paragraphs.

Zen and the Art of Writing

Bradbury’s book on Writing is a mixture of poetry and the passion he feels for writing. It’s another book that is worth contemplating as you type or scribble your prose.

That’s all Folks!

I sincerely hope this was all helpful. If you have further questions or thoughts or anything to add please feel free to comment below.

Also, shameless self-promotion here, but if you like Science Fiction check out my book Mimi of the Nowhere, the first book in my Science Fiction series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration.