Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Every Scene Needs Tension and a Change

 by Jodie Renner, editor and author  

Do you have a scene in your novel where nothing much really happens, where your protagonist isn’t in trouble, or at least challenged? Where there’s not a lot of tension and no major developments or setbacks? If so, rewrite that scene or take it out, with any essential bits from it inserted somewhere else. If you leave it as is, that could well be the scene where your readers decide the story is lagging, and they put it down – and don’t pick it up again. 

There’s no place for “filler” in a page-turning thriller. Today’s readers are much more impatient than readers of the past, much less willing to slog on through boring parts to see if things improve. Every scene needs to grab them with lots of tension and intrigue. Anything significant needs to be “shown,” not “told” (see my article “Show, Don’t Tell”), and the events and dialogue of every scene need to move the plot along and result in a significant change in the characters and their situation. 

Every scene needs tension.

As James Scott Bell says, “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions.” How do you create that needed conflict? According to Bell, “You create outer tension by giving the POV character a scene objective. What does he want, and why? It has to matter to him, or it won’t to us.”

Then decide what kinds of obstacles should keep your protagonist from reaching his goal. It could be another character (or several) with an opposing agenda, or a difficult circumstance, or both.

Finally, to continue the tension flowing into the next scene, and to keep the reader worried and reading, it’s best to make most scenes come out with the character suffering a setback. 

Of course, not every scene is going to have a fight or a screaming match. But even in quieter scenes, it’s important to show the inner tension of your viewpoint character – worry, concern, irritability, anxiety, doubt, indecision. Also show the tension of other characters by their words, actions, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.

Each scene needs significant change.

As Hallie Ephron says, “In the course of each scene, some change should occur to move your story forward. It’s not enough for a scene to just introduce a character or convey lots of fascinating information about the setting. In every scene, something has to change. This means that something has to happen that changes the situation, or a character’s perception of it, and that change propels the story forward.” 

The change that occurs in a scene can be a shift in a character’s emotional state, their relationship with others, or their situation – usually for the worst. And the change needs to result in character growth or plot change.

Write tight, compelling scenes. Start late and end early.

Besides making sure every scene has conflict and change, and events are “shown,” not described or “told,” another tip for keeping your readers turning the pages is to start each scene as late as possible. In other words, don’t spend a lot of time with description and scene setup – start just as things are getting rolling. 

However, it’s important to remember that even though you want to start late, don’t forget to orient the reader at the start of each scene by establishing right away who the viewpoint character is for the scene and when and where the action is taking place. This brief setting of the scene should happen within the first sentence or two, to avoid reader confusion and frustration.

Secondly, end each scene and chapter as early as possible. Don’t let scenes dribble off – instead, end each scene on a powerful note that propels the readers forward with a new story question for the next scene or chapter. Resist the urge to say the same thing in several ways or to add more minor details. And don’t resolve everything at the end of the scene – leave readers hanging most of the time, with your protagonist still struggling.

A blueprint for writing strong scenes:

Jack M. Bickham gives us some specific advice for writing powerful scenes. According to him, any time you start to write a scene, you should go through the following process (reworded slightly for brevity, and my italics):

1. Decide specifically what the main character’s immediate goal is.

2. Get this written down clearly in the copy.

3. On a separate note to yourself, write down, clearly and briefly, what the scene question is. Word it so it can be answered by “yes” or “no.”

4. In your story, after the goal has been shown, bring in another character who now states, just as clearly, his opposition.

5. Plan all the maneuvers and steps in the conflict between the two characters you have set up.

6. Write the scene moment-by-moment; no summary.

7. Devise a disastrous ending of the scene – a turning of the tables or surprise that answers the scene question badly.” [ends badly for the protagonist]

Bickham concludes, “Please note, however, that none of this can happen – nothing can work – if the scene does not grab your readers and intensely involve them. To accomplish that, the scene must be lifelike.” 

So don’t tell us what happened – show the action in real time, with plenty of tension, revealing throughout the scene the viewpoint character’s goals, emotions, reactions, and sensory perceptions.

Writing high-tension scenes

Your plot should include a few especially tense scenes, probably one in the middle, and the biggest one for the climax, where the tension, conflict, suspense and action are at an extreme level. 

To design these pivotal scenes or “set pieces,” as they call them in screenwriting, you’ll need to brainstorm for the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist at that time. Make a list and pick the scariest possibility.

Once you’ve decided what will happen in that scene, maximize the tension by building up to it and hinting at it beforehand, to raise the apprehension of the readers. Set up the danger ahead of time for the readers, by making it something the protagonist or someone close to them is worried might happen, or a glimpse we see into the villain’s plans, etc.

And once you’re in the scene, be sure to show us how your character is feeling. Make the readers aware of his doubts, anxieties, fears, and determination. Show his decision-making process, so we’re right there with him, trying to figure a way out of the dilemma or how to stop the destructive plans of the bad guy. And give us the details of how he's feeling physically as well. Perhaps he's injured and in pain, or showing physical signs of terror or panicking.


James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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