Today, for my weekly(ish) writing craft blog post, I’m going to talk about one of the key techniques you can employ to raise tension and suspense in you stories.
One of the best ways to raise tension and suspense is to write sparely. What do I mean by sparely? I mean: direct, to the point, compact prose that puts the reader in the moment, gives them what they need – and nothing more – prose that’ll really make the pages turn.
This is one of the very best ways to keep the pages turning, keep the tension up and keep readers excited and wanting more.
It’s often said, that in horror “Less is more” – but this is just as valuable advice at the prose-level as it is when talking about whether or not to show the blood and guts on the page or whether to leave it up to the reader’s imagination.
So when I’m referring to this prose-level “Less is more” , what am I really saying? I’m literally saying less words (and possibly even short words) is better.
Waffling on with paragraph long descriptions of character’s appearances or individual sword blows is one fast way to kill tension and suspense and the momentum in your story, particularly during critical scenes where action should be happening and pages should be turning fast enough to give your readers RSI.
Think about it:
The antagonist walks into the bar where a fight is about to break out. If you write a whole paragraph describing his black leather pants and his handlebar mustache, then you’ve already killed the mood. All that tension that the reader felt in knowing that the bad guy was coming and all hell was about to break loose got lost as you described the intricate leather workings of his riding boots. Don’t do this. It would be much better, for example, to have an argument break out and use that argument as a vehicle to keep the reader excited, set up your fight scene and you can dribble in a bit of extra information if you require.
Remember we want to keep tension up, reader interest piqued and pages turning. To that end, we want to keep our sentences tight. Only give the reader what they need to know and not waffle on or describe unnecessary details.
Check out the following examples.. they may be a little bit extreme, but I really want to show you the difference in the effect. In the “what to do” example, you should get a feeling of tension straight away as though “uh oh, shit is gonna hit the fan”. In the second example, you’ll probably get so bored you’ll start considering self harm.
What to do:
The bar doors squealed and banged against each other and everyone looked up, ‘cept ol’ John on the harpsichord. He always was deaf as post.
“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!” The man was big, his face hard. His hands rested on silver pistols holstered at his hips.
Old Ted pulled up a shotgun from behind the bar. Glasses and bottles fell and shattered as men jumped out of the way.
“I ain’t givin’ him up, not to the likesa you, Grimmit”
Grimmit’s guns were in his hands before Ted had finished speaking.
“Well, seems as though we’ve got a problem on our hands. I’s got two reasons here why ya’ll should be reasonable, Ted. You want to be reasonable, dontcha?”
What not to do:
We were sitting the bar, when we heard the doors bang against each other. We looked up to find a large gentleman had entered the room. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over coarse denim pants, that were tucked into leather boots. His face was hard, as though it had been cut from granite and he his eyes were a steely grey. On his hips were two silver smith and wesson pistols, holstered in black leather. His belt was a bandolier of bullets around his waist.
“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!”
Old Ted stood behind the bar, his fat white mustache sat atop a wicked sneer. He reached under the counter and pulled out a double barrel twelve gauge.
Cool tidbit about these two scenes: They both have the exact same word count, 130 chars. check for yourself if you’d like. The good one however moved much quicker, was tense from the get-go and the content was far more exciting,
So remember folks, when you want your pages to turn and tension to build up.. either before and during your critical scenes – write sparely.