Friday, December 9, 2011

Please welcome Guest Cheryl St. John

Creating Tension In A Scene

Even though you may have set up great conflict for your characters, you still have to use your writing tools to get the optimum mileage from a great premise. Using tension in a scene is imperative to keeping the reader turning pages. Because of the importance of pacing, high tension isn’t appropriate for every scene. You need peaks and valleys in your story. Your audience must be able to recognize the calm spots in order to recognize high intensity. Extreme pressure is not necessary in every single scene—that’s pacing. Even action adventure movies have occasional scenes of down time for reflection or levity or kisses. Scene and sequel are always the key to appropriate pacing.

First, make sure you’ve built into your character traits that will lead to trouble in important scenes: Impetuousness, independence, pride, naiveté, are all qualities that will make your character get himself into jams. How much tension you can portray will depend heavily on built-in conflict and character flaws.

Set up the tension.

Keep saying “No” to your character. Whatever it is they want, hold it back. Don’t try to fix things for them—that comes later—and most of the time I don’t even worry about how I will fix a problem. The best conflict is that which appears unsolvable, so heap situations on them for them to prove their mettle. Don’t make their situations easier; always make their lives more difficult.

Look at your character’s goals and ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Then take the worst thing a step further. For emotional intensity, conflict should be directly related to the character’s internal goals and to their backstory. Don’t rely on “incidents” to carry scenes or conflict. Heaping one calamity after another can end up leaving the reader breathless and feeling like she’s watching the Perils of Pauline. By an incident, I mean something that could happen to anyone and doesn’t really have emotional importance to this particular character.

Here’s a simplistic example: A torrential thunderstorm with hail that destroys property or crops would be devastating for anyone. But if your character’s goal is to make a success of herself by growing the largest tomato for the state fair, AND her parents died when a storm washed a bridge out when she was young, you’ve got the basis for a tense scene.

Jayne Ann Krentz says that in pivotal scenes you should think “larger-than-life, emotion and contrast.” A plot is basically a series of pivotal scenes that will cause your two main characters to confront each other frequently on an intensely emotional level. Arrange these scenes in your story so that they escalate in terms in intensity.

Spoonfeed backstory

Leaving details about the character in question is an effective way to intrigue your reader. Don’t fill in all the answers, but give them enough so that they’re not frustrated. With most techniques, what to use and what to omit is a balance, one that depends on your story and your characters.
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You can’t leave out something and then just throw it in at the end because it needs to be told or because it’s the end of the book. You must make the reader want to know the information by planting a seed, alluding to this mystery and using it as a teaser. Like this line: “She hated funerals.” Plain and simple. Someone dies, but your heroine won’t go to the services. The reader is left knowing there is a reason and wanting to know what that reason is. The lure of the unknown draws the reader further and further into the story. Revealing too much takes away the seductive lure of discovery.

The reader must know something is missing. You don’t want to make him feel like he has had something pulled over on him once the story ends. We don’t want him surprised that this huge fact is revealed—we want him surprised at what that revelation is.

Don’t use backstory in action scenes.
Hint at things to make the reader want to know.
Keep the reader wanting to know more.
Make the reader want to see a character reaction.

Another approach is the Hitchcock technique. Let the reader know something that none of the story people know. This is successful because it keeps the reader guessing when the character will find out and how they will react.

As you’re writing, remember, the power is in the verb.
Use a hook at the end of a paragraph.
Use a hook when you switch point of view.
Use a hook at the end of each scene.

In a romance, romantic interludes are action scenes, and if you’ve kept tension high throughout the first chapters, the reader is eagerly awaiting this scene. If a romantic scene happens at the end of the book, it’s a resolution—by now the hero and heroine have realized they love each other and are culminating their physical relationship. All external conflicts should have been tied up by this time.

If a romantic scene, say a kiss, takes place before internal conflict is settled, as a plot point or as an added dilemma, then you must follow the scene with a new problem or hook or story question that keeps the story moving. If you allow tension to drop, your story will stop moving forward.

The classic example, of course, is where the hero/heroine share a tender scene, everything seems blissful, and then one of them discovers some truth about the other that pushes them apart again. This is used often in books and movies because it works so well, but it’s always fun to think up something new, so give clichés another thought when you’re plotting.

Change is what keeps the reader turning pages: New challenges, new information, new twists and added complications. I’m putting my own advice to the test right now, while writing an online read for the Harlequin site. I’m not putting myself to sleep yet, so I think it’s going well.

Do you have a favorite author who never fails to keep you turning pages?

Cheryl St.John is holding her Annual Great Christmas Tree Tour. She would love for you to share a photo of your Christmas tree with her! Send to:

From The Heart:
Christmas Gold
Check out these Christmas novellas for someone who is getting a new Kindle!


  1. First? really?

    Now let's see if I'm coherent...

    Page turners...

    Today was Mellie's Merchant's Daughter.

    I've loved all the Seeker books I've read. I'd say who immediately jumps to mind but then I run the risk of forgetting someone ;).

    Deeanne Gist keeps the pages turning. Kaye Dacus. Janice Thompson. Sandy Bricker. Sandi Rog.

    And now I'm going to bed...

  2. Great info, Cheryl!

    The page-turner author who comes to mind is my CP Jody Hedlund. When I'm reading for her I've found myself staying up late to critique "just one more chapter" because I want to know what happens next. She's a master at what she calls ROPs, or read-on prompts, pulling me from the end of one scene to the next, one chapter after another. And talk about tension. She ramps it up nicely. I'm taking lessons from her. =)

  3. Hi Cheryl:

    Given all the important points you made, I’m going to have to read your Christmas books. So glad they are on the Kindle! : )

    The authors who always keep me turning pages are: Louis L’Amour, M.C. Beaton, J.A. Jance, Tony Hillerman, Janet Evanovich, Linda Fairstein and Donna Leon.

    You can see it is easier to do this with a mystery/thriller/action story than it is in a romance.

    Debby Giusti did a masterful job of making the pages turn and turn very quickly with her “The Officer’s Secret”.

    “The Officer’s Secret”. features a very good mystery (who done it?), a very tense suspense which carries to the very end (whoever is doing it, will they kill the hero and heroine before the story ends,) and there are growing natural disasters which keep escalating as the story progresses. There is also an almost impossible romantic conflict because the heroine has ample reason to believe that the hero could be involved in the murder of her sister! (And he is investigating the crime!)

    “The Officer’s Secret”. is like a perfect storm of converging conflicts. It’s like a masterclass for aspiring writers. It’s also the first book in a series.

    I do have one suggestion and that is to allow the hero and heroine to have some small victories along the way. This will reward the reader who vicariously identifies with the main character. Giving the reader an emotional high makes the next fall seem even greater.


  4. Cheryl,

    I love when the Seekerville post of the day makes me say 'ooo' and then jump into my word program to tweak a scene. Then I go back to the post, say 'ooo' again, and go tweak some more.

    This was such a clear, cut and dried list of ways to use page turners! I had a judge comment on one of my entries 'be careful of ending the scene with the MC going to sleep. Your reader is likely to put the book down and do the same thing', hahaha! I really should have known better, but I think since I write at night, all these sleep people just sneak around in the ms without my say-so.

    I wish I could send you a Christmas tree picture! But our youngest are 2 and 1... 'Nuff said. We'll be festive in other, not as tempting ways. :)

  5. I have a few authors who I have learnt not to start the book at night cos I will not get sleep! Some are Jillian Hart. Her latest kept me up late, Mary Connealy, Pam Hillmans debut did this to me too (I remember telling her it was her fault I was so tired), Paula Vince and Meredith Resce both aussie Authors, There are others to. Camy Tangs lastest had me turning pages to.

  6. Super info Cheryl! Thank you! Now to implement each nuance into my current WIP. Merry Christmas!

    I just finished Randy Ingermanson's Double Vision - romantic suspense... Oh yeah... Where's Helen's strong coffee... *yawn*

    Yay Carol - firstest with the mostest!

  7. Hi Cheryl,

    This is such a helpful post. I'm working at ramping up the tension in a ms, so it comes at a good time, too. I think I let my h/h off the hook and need to make them suffer a bit more. Thanks for the tips.


  8. This is so awesome!! If you ever have an opportunity to take a Cheryl St. John online class...jump to it!

    Cheryl do you have a newsletter to keep folks apprised of when your next classes are? (I think I am on it actually) How can the peeps sign up?

  9. Keli -

    Jody! Of course! <3 Jody's books - and got way too little done the days I read them ;).

  10. Thank you for this information, Cheryl.

    I especially needed the part about the definition of an "incident." Would you be able to take that farther?

    As an example, it seems like many stories will start out with someone caught in a storm, and then the person who rescues them turns out to be the love interest. How is that different from an incident? Or is it the writer's skill in making any incident deeper and more related to the person that makes that kind of thing okay?

    Thanks for your insights on this. I've heard the term "episodic," which I've said here before. Yet if we're writing scenes, those will be episodes. How do we connect them more deeply to the character?

  11. Welcome back to Seekerville, Cheryl! And thank you for the fabulous tips! I'm definitely going to print these out and review my current WIP with them before I turn it in.

  12. Welcome back to Seekerville, Cheryl! And thank you for the fabulous tips! I'm definitely going to print these out and review my current WIP with them before I turn it in.

  13. Morning Cheryl and Welcome to Seekerville,

    What a great list from a page-turner author. And you sound like Ruthy when you say to make it tough on your characters.

    Anyone seen Arthur Christmas? It was a classic example of what Cheryl is talking about.

    Thanks again Cheryl for a great post.

    ps love love love the title and cover of Snowflakes and Stetsons. Just made me want to grab it.

  14. Great posting! Let's see, the authors that always keep me turning pages are Colleen Coble, Sarah Sundin, Margaret Daley, and Debbie Guisti. There are many many more but I find that every book by any of these authors keep me turning until I reach that very last page.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  15. Do you have a favorite author who never fails to keep you turning pages? Yes I do! I was hooked when I read The Preacher's Wife and now collect her books...

    Thank you for sharing with us today Cheryl. Like your class Conflict Makes the Story today's blog is full of helpful information. I will definitely be printing this one out.

    I'm excited that you are working on an online read. I'll be watching for it. Do you know when it will be up?

  16. Cheryl, welcome back to Seekerville. I'm so excited you're here!

    Keeping tension alive in scenes is so difficult for me to do because I want to fix everything. Now. Not later. That is my biggest obstacle to overcome.

    I will overcome : ) And posts such as this help me reach my goal, LOL!!

    Seekervillians! If conflict and tension are your problems, too then RUN and scour the internet for any class Cheryl teaches on these subjects. I took her Conflict class just this last September and had so many "duh" and "wow, I never thought of it that way" moments, it was terrific!

    LOL, that was an unpaid, unsolicited comerical spot.

    Just a testamony for an ultra-satisified pupil whose characters now cringe and run every time I sit down to write : )

    Thanks for sharing with us, Cheryl!

    I've been practicing my candy making skills and have brought some Peppermint bark for y'all to try. Dark chocolate base with white chocolate topping and LOTS of pepermint sprinkles.

    Carmels are next. Save room!

  17. Cheryl, this is a printer and keeper but I'm in NASHVILLE TN and I can't... but I will when I get home to upstate!

    Oh, thank you so much for being here! This is not only sage advice, but so simply put that it makes sense. I love sensible people. They help keep me calm.

    Kind of.

    And Carol, look at you being careful... ;)

    So guys, I'm down South, the world hasn't fallen apart and the sky hasn't fallen, but according to Mary Connealy-the-doomsayer, it's likely to happen because I'M HERE. Evidently a little bit of disaster in Yosemite National Park, Hurricane Lee, Hurricane Irene-the-Yankee-ballgame-ruiner....

    I submit that the wiles and wherefores of mother nature are not my fault, but pray for Nashville. Just in case. ;)

  18. Cheryl, this was such an excellent post. Your explanation and examples helped me tons. I'm working to finish my first wip, but I plan to scour through it when I go back and check my tension levels (probably need to add tension and those small victories Vince shared about). I plan to print this out and refer back to it often.

    Also, if you do have a newsletter, I'd be interested in signing up. :)

    I have a number of favorite page turner authors. A couple who come to mind off the top of my head are Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck. I also enjoy DeeAnn Gist.

    Audra, I make peppermint bark with the same ingedients. :) We ate through my first batch this week. I'm going to make more for friends (and I'd best give it all away, or I'll definitely be adding "weight" to my unexpected Christmas gifts this year. :)

  19. Hi Cheryl:) Thanks for all the great advice...exactly what I was needing to hear. THe Hitchcock technique is new to me...I was wondering why my tension scenes don't seem to have enough spice. Also that 'lure of the unknown' you mentioned...certainly draws me when I I'll need to remember that:)
    One of my favourite authors is Linda Chaikin...she creates tension and lures the reader quite well...esp. in the silk series.
    Thanks again for the words of wisdom!

    lornafaith at gmail dot com

  20. Wow, Cheryl. I feel like...well, I'm hoping I'm doing this stuff subconsciously because I don't think I know any of it.

    I don't know how you manage to put this all into words so CLEARLY.

    I love it.

    I need to study.

    This is brilliant:
    For emotional intensity, conflict should be directly related to the character’s internal goals and to their backstory. Don’t rely on “incidents” to carry scenes or conflict.

  21. Cheryl, this post is a definite "print out and keep"! I'll be referring to it often as I work on my revisions.

    Favorite page-turning author? There are some I know I can't start on late at night - Mary Connealy, Louis L'amour, Dorothy Sayers, Jody Hedlund, Ruth Logan Herne...actually, all the Seeker books I've read...

    But there are some books that I just want to savor, and then I end up re-reading chapters just to get everything the author packed in.

    I used to read in bed, but no more. I need my sleep!

    I saw "Snowflakes and Stetsons" at Walmart yesterday! Love the cover!

  22. Welcome, Cheryl!

    Hint at things to make the reader want to know.

    Love this!

    It's so tempting when beginning a story (I know, because that's what I'm doing right now) to want to fill in all the blanks so the reader already knows where the characters are coming from.

    But your simple example "She hated funerals" is a genuine 3-word cliffhanger all by itself! Who wouldn't want to read on to find out why?

    Great, great instruction, Cheryl--THANK YOU!

  23. Great post, Cheryl, and some excellent hints that I will definitely be applying to my WIP.

    I started thinking about incidents, and wondering if I use that a lot. I was specifically thinking of a part where my heroine has to go rescue a a bunch of kids from a treehouse during a thunderstorm. Incident, yes, but in the second draft, I added that she had a crazy fear of heights, and has to climb a swaying rope ladder to get to the kids. I hope that made it more interesting!

    Audra, I;m with you in that I like making things easier for my characters! Maybe I need to take one of Cheryl's classes, too.

    Happy Friday and Merry Christmas!

  24. Thanks for the tips, Cheryl. Great reminders!

  25. Hi Cheryl,
    My head is swimming right now. You've given me so much to think about. Telling too much too fast is a pitfall for me and I always have to go back through my WIPs and root them out. Thanks for the great tips. I know I'll be reading your post over and over!


  26. Did I mention that I love your cover?

    Tina Radcliffe

  27. Cheryl, thanks for such an informative post. I'm keeping it and plan to reread it. It's a real skill to keep the reader turning pages. Thanks for the tips!

  28. Wow. Who keeps me turning the pages over and over? The first one who comes to mind is Mary Connealy. Love Tracie Peterson. So many to name and not enough time to name them! :)

    Thank you for sharing this today. I am enjoying learning so much!

  29. Excellent information like always Cheryl! Thanks!

  30. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? LOL. If only it were so.

    Thanks for the tips, Cheryl. Sometimes I get carried away and have lovely little scenes where nothing much happens. Of course, I have to chop them out later. But at the time, it's a nice respite from all the tension!

    Have a great weekend everyone!


  31. ??? Everybody must be out Christmas shopping???

  32. No Linette, not Christmas shopping - furiously revising our WIP's after reading Cheryl's fantastic post :)

  33. Ooooo, Cheryl, this is RIGHT up my alley because to me there is nothing better than tension in a scene ... especially romantic tension!!!

    Thanks for all the great tips, several of which are neon signs saying, "Julie, you need to do this ..."

    And I'm with Mary -- "hoping I'm doing this stuff subconsciously because I don't think I know any of it."

    Which ... is exactly why you are here today, Cheryl!! :)


  34. Thanks so much for sharing, Cheryl. This was really helpful.
    The first two who come to mind are Brandilyn collins and Mary Higgins clark.Right now I'm reading Holiday Hideout by Lynette Eason and have trouble putting it down.
    Thanks again for sharing, and Merry Christmas!
    Jackie Layton

  35. Even though I'm a married mom of three, authors that get the pages turning for me are Rick Riordan (reading "Son of Neptune" now), and dare I say, Stephenie Meyer ("The Host" in particular)? Not to mention Agatha Christie. I do read deeper stuff, like classics, but sometimes you have to get through those first two/three chapters to start connecting w/the MCs in those.

    Very interesting on the Hitchcock technique. Just read a Karin Fossum mystery in which the reader knew who the murderer was, but not the detective. VERY EFFECTIVE for drawing you into the book!

    Thanks for the informative post!

  36. LOL, Jan!

    outside of Seekerville:
    Julie Klassen & Karen Witemeyer

  37. Ruthy - how long will you be there? I'll be there tomorrow afternoon!!!!!!!

    Wow - could it possibly be?

    How PAWSOME would THAT be?!

  38. Oh, well, put us on the spot. ;) And after doing edits all day, okay the last several days, my brain is blank.

    Great post, one I'll definitely have to come back to read.

  39. Oh!!! I thought of one. Mary Connealy. Oh wait, Pam Hillman and Vickie Mcdonough.

  40. Ruthy, are you on location for the Yankee-Belle Cafe per chance?

  41. Loved the Christmas tree photo...sweet.

    wonderful post. Cheryl-I'm printing it off
    (My binder overfloweth with Seekerville posts)

    Woohoo, it's the weekend!

  42. I was shopping all day! My first chance, really, so I'm not making apologies or excuses for being really really late. I always enjoy my time here and the interaction.

    Thanks for all the great replies on books that keep you turning pages. What a variety!

    Virginia, we have an almost 2 year old in the house, too. My own tree goes up tomorrow, and I do mean UP. I'm decorating a small one in a high place this year. Once when I had a toddler, I put a full size tree up in a wooden playpen.

    Tina, I'm going to do a workshop called GETTING RID OF THE JUNK THAT HOLDS US BACK in January. It covers thins like fear and jealousy. I ask members to take an honest look inside themselves and see where they've been shooting themselves in the foot. I'll post the sign up to Mary, and trust her to share with others. Thanks for asking and for the kind words about my workshops.

  43. Cathy, I think we need a certain amount of incidental happenings to ground the story in realism. Those things that happen to everyone and are pretty much external flesh out the story, but they don't advance the plot.

    Episodic means there are things happening that aren't feeding into the character's internal conflict. Losing car keys isn't feeding internal conflict, unless it's critical that the character hang onto these keys for some reason--like one unlocks the vault that holds the key to saving the world. (That's a dramatic example, sorry.)

    I think I know how I make the scenes deeply connected to the character (THESE ARE GREAT QUESTIONS BY THE WAY) but I can't tell anyone specifically how do it my way, because everyone creates differently. Don't ever let anyone tell you one way is the only way, when it comes to how you develop your story or your characters. Here's what works for me:

    Because I don't have scenes planned out when I start my book, one scene leads to another. I have plot points planned and know where I'm going (usually) but the characters tell me what happens next. I would love to hear how those who plot scenes in advance keep them connected to the conflict.

    Cathy, you mentioned the heroine caught in a storm and the person who rescues her turning out to the the hero. In The Holiday, Eli Wallach's loveable character calls it the "meet cute"." In romance it's called the "cute meet." I think the skill involved is in making coincidence a surprise or at least believable. You do that by making the reader care and involving emotions.

    Hope I answered your questions and made sense. After being gone all day, I just baked cinnamon rolls for my chapter Christmas party tomorrow - and it's after one AM.

  44. Thanks for asking. I think this will take you to sign up for my newsletter:

  45. Christmas blessings to each of you!

    Thanks for the commercial, Audra.


  46. I'm late! But great advice, as always!

  47. I'm late! But great advice, as always!