Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 

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Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

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27 thoughts on “Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

  1. Thanks for this — I recall a workshop with the advice, “Go fast through the slow parts, slow through the fast parts.”
    I know exactly which scene I need to check in my editing pass.

  2. Great to think about this. I was re-viewing my ms today and noticed a missing beat. Enhanced the scene with proper sequencing, which gave an opportunity to deepen a character and enhance the setting as well. Oh – and tension. It ramped up a notch. One weak sentence revealed four (almost) missed opportunities. Fun!

    • Two good points, Jay, about deepening character and enhancing setting. These beats can do “double duty” as they keep the reader glued to the page!

  3. Great post. I’ve already got two scenes in my WIP that NEED stretching.
    Just finished ‘Hit and Run”. Very Rod Serling. I especially loved the line lost his tacos.

  4. [Hold on while I finish my hissy fit.]

    Okay.

    See? I write like this. I describe, I conjecture, I cite. I mean, I describe the hamburgers from the Lucky Star Cafe, torn down now 52 years ago, across the street of the school. The home-made mustard, the onions that Ruby herself went down to the produce depot and picked out. If your hamburger doesn’t taste like Ruby’s, your a loser. I GUESS there’s never been a better hamburger anywhere in the world–especially the Muslim countries. You could tell you were getting close to the Lucky Star because people would stop and sniff the air: Ruby’s hamburgers wafted through the air–beef turned into a evanescence: une eau de cologne de boeuf. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you.

    Then EVERYONE–well, my editor–yells at me. “You need to rewrite this.”

    That’s how I write. That’s my style.

    You can use your style when you’re well-known.

    I’m going to get well-know because I use my style NOW.

    Then she threatens the advance. Do I want to send it back by postal money order or Western Union? Sorry, no personal checks accepted.

    What’s a guy who loves one particular une eau de cologne de boeuf to do? That’s the way I write.

    • A fine hissy fit, Jim. I guess I would ask, where’s the tension? E.g., I could see your illustrative paragraph in the middle of a hero-tracking-killer scene…or a knock-down-domestic-argument scene…or even just I-lost-my-wallet. If “EVERYONE” is saying the same thing, perhaps the answer is more conflict?

      • Thank you for your answer. Actually, I was just typing off the way I write–there isn’t any story here.

        But I lay on plenty of tension. In my latest volume of the series, I open the story with a flight from Oklahoma to Palm Springs during a Coachella haboob on an Air Force Cessna jet. As soon as the plane lands, my protagonist spots the guy who left her and another woman stranded in a Tennessee park where the other woman is brutally killed.

        My protagonist takes off after the coward who left them and beats him to a pulp.

        But I do appreciate your pointing out the continuing need for tension.

        And that’s where my editor comes up. It’s not the story–it’s what she calls my verbosity. What I call fiction writing.

  5. I’m attempting to calm my heart down after reading that preview. Tension, the twist, the other twist, and the really interesting pieces of information… you can see why Lee Child sells so many books.

    Last night, I wrote the chase scene in my current WIP, writing it beat-by-beat, but there’s nowhere near enough tension- there’s a twist though, which I’m relatively happy with. I’m going to go back and study that preview again, see where I can amp it up a bit more.

    Thanks for sharing.

    And Psycho– what a great movie. Haven’t seen it in years, so I think it’ll be on my viewing list for the weekend.

    • I’m a Hitchcock fanatic…what a master. The way he can make something as simple as a walk up the stairs a study in suspense…(I’m thinking of the milk in Suspicion, carried by Cary Grant.)

  6. And if you’re familiar with Lee Child, you know all that detail about the subway cars, etc., is going to show up again–and be significant.

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  8. Great post Jim! Anything that lifts your book a level is fabulous advice.
    As soon as I read your experience of watching Psycho, it reminded me of my experience watching Silence of the Lambs. A dark theatre, a bus ride home late at night, checking under the bed and in the closet before going to bed… and the chill stayed with me for a few days.

    • Oh, man. I went to see a matinee of The Silence of the Lambs, and when I got home my wife (who did not want to see it) said I was as white as a sheet. Another amazing movie-going experience.

  9. Oh I love this post! Great observation and point. I am a fan of both Koontz and Hitchcock. Whisper was the first book I read of Dean’s years ago and I STILL remember it.

    You have a way of boiling writing tips down to something we can all grasp. Now I am eager to go through my current manuscript and see where I can add more beats and stretch out that tension. Thank you!

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