Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adding Tension to the Mundane

Thanks to so many of you who went over to Author Expressions yesterday. If you didn't check my 'audition' post, you can find it here.

While doing edits definitely qualifies as writing, yesterday was the first time in about 10 days that I’ve been able to sit down and work on the new WIP. I’ve tried once again to analyze my process.

My basic premise in writing a scene is to decide what needs to happen to move the story along. I’ve discussed keeping tension in the story, so I’ll try to go over my points and show how I attempt to add that tension.

The scene: Elizabeth and Will return from shopping. Will is in his room drawing with his new pastels. Elizabeth is trying to relax by reading. (Yawning yet?). The moving van driver calls to set up delivery in two days. Elizabeth thinks about her husband and the risks she’s taking with her new life. Will comes in and shows her a picture he’s drawn—the hero’s dog. She puts it on the mantel. The welcome lady shows up to tell her about the neighborhood and gives her a basket of goodies. The welcome lady notices the picture and comments that it’s an excellent likeness. She asks if Elizabeth’s son drew it.

By now, you’re probably not just yawning, you’re asleep. Well, wake up for a moment and let’s see if I’ve managed to kick it up by adding some tension.


In order to keep the tension level high, even the mundane has to have the possibility of being more than first impressions would suggest. There should be more than one way to interpret anything on the page. So even if I, the author, know that a character or event is harmless, I can’t let the reader know.

Let’s take it point by point with my comments in red, and direct quotes from the scene in blue.

Elizabeth and Will return from shopping. Will is in his room drawing with his new pastels. Elizabeth is trying to relax by reading. (Yawning yet?).

Boring, but this is covered in a single paragraph:

With her purchases put away and Will happily giving his new supplies a test drive, Elizabeth sat with a cup of tea and the new paperback she'd picked up. She'd earned a break. Two chapters in, she set the book aside. What had possessed her to pick up a suspense thriller? She was already on edge. She should have gone for the romance. At least in those books, someone had a happily-ever-after.

By making the book a suspense-thriller, we have the added ‘twist’ that she’s going to be overreacting to everything. So although the fears are on the page, the reader isn’t sure if they’re real or imagined.

The moving van driver calls to set up delivery in two days.

Okay, this is simply a classic ‘phone rings, she jumps’ scenario. But it also sets the stage for her having to deal with someone she doesn’t know showing up at her home. It’s covered quickly, in a sentence or two. We also get to see Elizabeth chiding herself for being so jumpy—again adding that ‘is he going to be a bad guy’ possibility.

Elizabeth thinks about her husband and the risks she’s taking with her new life.

This reinforces her entire GMC for the book, and reveals a new fact to the reader.

Victor didn't like losing. And even though he'd barely paid attention to Will after his surgery, she knew Victor, and knew he'd never tolerate someone making off with something that belonged to him.

Of course, he considered her another one of his possessions. And if he ever found out what else she'd taken from him…

Will comes in and shows her a picture he’s drawn—the hero’s dog. She puts it on the mantel.

Will wants to give the picture to Grinch’s son—but that would mean she’d have to confront him again. Here the conflict is focused on the romance plot, which needs to be addressed throughout the book. Both the mystery and the romance should be entwined so one can’t exist without the other. So, this point also demonstrates Will’s talent—something Elizabeth fears might allow her husband to trace him. She tries to decide if she should see if Will can draw people—such as the man she thinks has been following them.

The welcome lady shows up to tell her about the neighborhood and gives her a basket of goodies.

How to add tension to that plot point? She hears a car approach. It’s a dusty SUV. She’s already seen one that she thinks might have been following her. But where she lives, dusty SUVs are the norm. Again, two ways to interpret what’s on the page.

At first, she can’t see who’s getting out of the SUV. Tension. It’s an elderly woman carrying a basket. Release. But is the woman who she seems to be? Tension. She has cookies in the basket from her family bakery. Release. Elizabeth tries to project the image of a normal, everyday mom. This means she has to be hospitable, even though she wants the woman out of the house. Tension. The woman makes small talk which also allows the reader to learn more about Elizabeth’s new town. Release.

The welcome lady notices the picture and comments that it’s an excellent likeness. She asks if Elizabeth’s son drew it.

Elizabeth fought rising panic. Surely Will's artistic style wasn't distinctive enough for this woman to zero in on it, like you could recognize a Rembrandt or a Picasso. Maybe Victor was more clever than she'd thought.

Although the scene is still in draft form, I'm hoping I've managed to get some tension into the mundane. And come back tomorrow for the Friday Field Trip.

18 comments:

Mason Canyon said...

Mixing the tension with the mundane helps the story flow to me as a reader. I've read some books that were so tension-packed that I felt I'd ran a marathon by the time I finished. A little mundane gives you a chance to catch your breath before the next exciting scene.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Christine Morgan said...

Sounds like an exciting story!

Terry Odell said...

Mason - yes, pacing is crucial. But even the 'slow' parts have to keep moving

Christine - thanks.

Sam said...

Thanks, Terry, for this lesson. It's something I'm struggling with in my WIP. My hero, homeless, spends a lot of time considering where his next meal will come from. Though it's crucial to him, it's potentially boring to the reader because it's so mundane.

Terry Odell said...

Sam - glad you found it useful. I think it's getting into the character's head that makes the mundane more personal, which is what the reader needs. See if those mundane tasks can be the backdrop rather than the focus.

Kathy said...

Thank you Terry for sharing the way to do this. I have never seen it broken down so that someone could see what others tell you should be there. I hope you are getting adjusted to your new home. My husband and I have a move in about 2 weeks to face. Since we haven't found a place to live we will be sticking it all in storage for now and staying with my sister. Not the best situation but since I can't look at places online and determine if they meet our needs and wants the same as I could in person I think it will bebest. Plus I am changing jobs, scary proposition but necessary to make the move.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - that sounds exactly like what we did. Left most of our stuff in storage, stayed with our daughter until we found a place to rent until we found a place to buy. But at least we didn't have the job issues--hubster retired. Good luck!

Debra St. John said...

Congrats and getting to work on your WIP. I haven't touched mine in forever. Soon. Soon.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

This is the kind of technique that's really helpful with cozy mysteries (which don't have a lot of action scenes.) Quietly suspenseful and making the reader wonder what's sinister and what isn't!

Cleo Coyle said...

Really sharp examples of adding tension, Terry. This post would be a fantastic starter for a workshop group - hearing different ideas for giving the same scene added tension. (Going to check out your Author Expressions post.)

~ Cleo
Coffeehouse Mystery.com

Terry Odell said...

Debra - get to work!

Elizabeth - so true. Action doesn't have to be violent. Tension doesn't have to be, either.

Cleo - thanks so much. And yes, this could be a fun workshop!

Judi said...

Really great examples. My first time through on a manuscript, it's all about the exposition. My poor characters never have feelings ;-) Takes me a second look to figure out it's been half a page and they've been moving around and feeling nothing.
Thanks

Terry Odell said...

Judi - I've gotten better about including those bits of tension, but I still have to remind myself. Maass's Microtension workshop is still rolling around in my head.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Nice job, the tension/release. I've been wanting to get more tension in my scenes. This was so helpful. The examples are great. I learn best by examples. Thanks.

Ee Leen Lee said...

one way I know is not to have scenes involving the characters sipping tea or coffee in the kitchen/cafe- it drags the narrative flow

Terry Odell said...

En Leen - yes -- although there's still room for a tension-driving plot point or two, even while having lunch.

Definitely avoid it if the only function is to show that the characters are eating. Readers accept that characters eat, sleep, and use the bathroom even if it's kept off the page.

Carol Ann said...

Wonderful post, Terry. I especially appreciate the way you showed the tension/release. This is helpful information for everyone, no matter what stage of their career.

Terry Odell said...

Carol Ann - glad you found it useful. It's helping me, too!