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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Playing to Your Strengths

Owl-In-Flight

My wife Lisa’s greatest joy — after her husband, of course, and our ungrateful, unappreciative daughter — is her enjoyment of wild birds. We (well, she) has a couple of large, impervious-to-squirrels feeders set up outside of our kitchen window, and Lisa will spend hours photographing the birds that come to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of seed that is there for the taking. One characteristic of birds, however, is that they are slobs. They drop seed, they leave husks, and…well, you know the rest. We as a result get a nightly show in the form of nocturnal creatures gathering at night beneath the feeders in a heartwarming tableau. The opossums are first to arrive. They get there early to begin eating the seed that has been left on the ground. They eventually, however, are rudely shoved aside by the raccoons, the neighborhood bully boys who push aside the opossums as if they aren’t even there. The collective attitude of the masked bandits changes quickly, however, when the skunks arrive. Their “outta my way, kid” demeanor quickly changes to, “Oh, my, hello, Mr. Skunk! How nice to see you! We’ve been saving this pile of seed just for you.” Skunks are just so gentle and shy and cute as they walk up and begin eating. They don’t take any mess, however. I did see a young raccoon, one who apparently didn’t get the memo, try to nudge a skunk out of its way. The skunk engaged in some non-violent resistance, turning around and putting his tail up, resulting in three raccoons setting new distance and reaction records for standing side jumps. I didn’t know raccoons could jump sideways. They apparently can, if properly motivated.

What do those cute vignettes have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. After you’ve been writing for a while, you’re going to get the sense of what works and what doesn’t for you. Write what works for you. If you are good at writing action scenes but poor at writing dialogue, go with the explosions and karate and make you characters strong and silent. If you’re not able to write a convincing love scene without embarrassing yourself, don’t entangle your character in anything other than barb wire. If you can write great sex scenes but drop the thread on complex mysteries, keep the mystery simple and secondary to the amorous scenes in the bedroom or elsewhere. Our friend the opossum’s main strengths are to convincingly play dead (we’ve all run into folks like that, haven’t we, heh heh) and get places early. If you are good at writing action scenes, start with a strong one and jump from one to another. Your story may be best served by letting the plot drive it. As far as the skunk goes, we’re talking cute but dangerous. “Dangerous” isn’t too strong a word; making that midnight run out to a Sam’s Club for several five-gallon cans of tomato juice to erase the scent of skunk spray will make a believer out of you. So…the character is going to drive your story. Cute but dangerous? Think of Jack Reacher as played by, uh, Tom Cruise. If you are blessed with the ability to let plot and characters drive your novel, you’re like a raccoon. You can sense your story’s weaknesses and strengths, and sense when something can play out a bit or, alternatively, when it’s time to wrap it up.
Which animal are you when you write? One of the above? Or another? And why?…oh, and the animal at the top of my humble offering today? To paraphrase Raymond Chandler…”What. The owl? Oh. I forgot about him.” Not really. Owls are skunks’ natural predators. The reason? Owls don’t have olfactory glands.

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Being the Next…

Miami_Vice

I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

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Getting to Jack Reacher, or Someone Like Him

reacher said nothing

I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.

 

I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with  proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.

 

Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.

 

From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.

 

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To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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