So you have your plot of Rudolph’s adventures all worked out and you know where the climax and twist will be. Now you are considering writing the climax and want to know how to show tension when Rudolph can’t get the tractor down a narrow alleyway, or gets stuck in a snowdrift. So how do you show the tension?
It’s not as easy as you might think!
Action Words and Expletives
The first rule is to use more action words when you are writing action sequences. These are words like ‘ripped,’ ‘spun,’ ‘yelled,’ ‘wrenched,’ and ‘panted.’
Here is an example. See how this sentence sounds quite calm.
– He knew he needed to get through the door. He put down the axe and walked up to the door. He pulled on the handle and it opened. He went through the opening and all was well.
That definitely lacks tension. Let’s try it again:
– He had to get through the door. He only had seconds left! He threw his axe down, spun round and leaped toward the door. Grabbing the handle, he pulled and pulled but the door wouldn’t budge. Using all his strength, he gave it one last almighty heave and wrenched the door open. The wood cracked and splintered as the lock broke, and he was through!
“What’s the problem Rudolph?” Santa yelled.
“The door! It’s bloody stuck!”
Okay, so I went a bit over the top there; it’s twice as long. But it’s much more exciting.
Notice the use of words like ‘grabbing,’ ‘cracked.’
Also notice saying ‘had to’ instead of ‘knew he needed to.’ Forget about considered thought in tight situations. People just act and think later when they are desperate. This is one place where we definitely don’t need to know what the hero is thinking.
Also, note the use of an expletive (swear word) by Rudolph. You might not want to use expletives in your writing but it’s a fact that people swear a lot when under pressure. Leave swear words out and you risk losing realism.
For the last reason above, short sentences are good in action sequences. We want simple action, and short sentences tend to increase the pace.
Another trick is to use time. If the hero is not only fighting against an evil adversary or obstinate door but also against the clock, this will dramatically increase tension.
I used this a great deal in Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate.
Adversity or Obstacles
Elements of adversity or obstacle can also add tension. In the example above the door wouldn’t open easily and he had to wrench it open. Small accidents can also increase tension. He needs a key to unlock the door but he drops it, as people do when tense or in a hurry. Both accidents and obstacles also prolong the tension, which also helps create tension.
Use of Commas
The use of fewer commas during action sequences can increase tension, but this is a technique not all authors employ. If you try it, you still need to observe good grammar rules.
A Word of Warning about Length of Description
As you probably noticed in my example above, quite often action sequences can make the prose longer. For this reason, you will need to allow a bit more space for describing action, perhaps as much as 50% more space. But on the other hand, if you use short sentences carefully and avoid any description of inner feelings, you can sometimes keep the prose in action scenes as short as elsewhere.
Slowing the Pace
It may sound crazy, but sometimes you will want to slow the pace!
You can’t have climactic scenes throughout the whole book. This would be exhausting to read and would ignore the whole point of climaxes. But you may want more than one climax. In The Devil’s Own Dice I knew there would be a big battle in the middle of the story. Inevitably this has to be very tense and a climax of some sort. But I didn’t want it to be the final climax. This made things tricky. I got around it by making the lead up to the battle quite leisurely and keeping the tension high afterwards. I also had a strong ‘insight’ scene after the battle, so that we see a previous love affair in detail and how it affected the main character. This kept the pace up, because of the tension of an affair, but also allowed the reader a bit of a contrast to battle. I had to make sure the final climax was even more exciting, but on the whole, I think the reader feels they got a bonus, rather than a letdown
Using Chapter Breaks and Scene Switching
I put these 2 factors together because they sometimes amount to the same thing.
Because you will want the climax somewhere near the end of the book, each chapter should, on the whole, be more gripping than the last. This drags the reader along and won’t let them put the book down. For this reason, you should normally end each chapter on a cliffhanger. That is, they should either be just about to learn something or have just seen some action but not know the outcome. This will make the reader want to turn the next page.
If the book has a large cast and a complex arena of action such as the invasion of Earth in my science fiction book Worlds Like Dust, you might try switching between different areas of action, either at section breaks or chapter breaks, rather than trying to describe it all simultaneously. Allowing yourself to describe one piece of action completely before switching to another increases tension, because the reader is wondering in the back of their mind what has happened to so-and-so in the other scene. Tolkien does this brilliantly in Lord of the Rings. You must handle continuity very carefully when you do this.
So, in conclusion, to vary pace, use:
- Action Words and Expletives
- Short Sentences
- Adversity or Obstacles
- Reduced Number of Commas
- Chapter Breaks and Scene Switching
Join me for the final part of this series 6. Editing in two weeks’ time.
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