Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Importance of Urgency and Tension

Urgency is one of the key elements of good fiction because it compels a reader to keep turning the pages and that’s exactly what we want as writers.

Think of action thrillers and suspense and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Physical urgency is obvious in the action scenes in books and of course in action movies.

The super heroes that my grandson loves so much (and my husband fashions in modeling clay) engage in dramatic (really melodramatic) action that seems to go on from one scene to the next.

Even in a romantic suspense novel we’ll usually find guns blazing, heart-stopping activity and often a race against the clock. The characters are never still and seldom pause for breath.

Emotional Urgency

Emotional urgency is another kind of urgency and just as important as the physical type. Internal goals and conflict are crucial elements in romances. They create emotional urgency that is just as real as the external urgency so necessary in thrillers and suspense.

Our characters’ flaws stem from their individual personalities. These flaws along with unresolved baggage coming from their backgrounds place them in conflict with each other. This comes from inside them, not directly from what’s happening externally in the story. Who these people are internally along with what happened to them in the past greatly effect their choices in the present.

The emotional urgency comes when we, the reader, feel the characters must resolve their inner problems before it’s too late. That’s as vital as catching the thief right after he steals our purse with all our cash and our credit cards.

In A Path toward Love, by the time Katherine realizes she truly loves Andrew he’s already on his way to the railroad depot to leave for an extended trip to California. She feels she must declare her feelings now before he leaves the Adirondack Mountains. So she rushes as fast as she can. Her life isn’t at stake, but her heart certainly is.

As soon as she strode onto the dock she realized she’d have to take the rowboat once again, though she doubted her tired arms had the strength. The fastest way to the railroad depot was by boat, and the steam yacht had not yet returned. If only she knew when the train was scheduled to leave the station. What were the chances Andrew would still be there? Probably small, but she had to try.

She scrambled back into the rowboat and shoved off beneath the umbrella of a cloudless sky and hot sun. Tilting her hat brim to shield her from the brightness, the rays still managed to create bubbles of perspiration across her forehead. She rowed as fast as she could, pushing forward and then pulling back the oars with all her strength. Even with gloves on, she rubbed her blisters raw. She bit her lip and continued to row.

Katherine endures physical discomfort to get to Andrew in time. Once she arrives at the depot she ignores society’s standards of behavior to catch him before his train leaves. Stopping him and opening her heart to him becomes more important than how society judges her ‘inappropriate conduct.’

Katherine rushed down the dock and through the station, gasping for every painful breath against her restrictive corset.

She saw him again, nearing a first class car. “Andrew! Andrew!” She cupped her hands and called in a ragged voice, nearly muffled by the sounds of the belching train and passengers strolling along the short platform, chattering like magpies. “Please, Andrew! Wait!”

Heads turned in her direction and people stared open-mouthed.

We can also add time urgency to emotional urgency. The more urgency we include the more we increase the chances of writing a book a reader can’t put down.

Have something important at stake and make it an integral part of the plot.

Once we’ve woven urgency into our plot, we have to keep it high from scene to scene. We do this through tension.

Adding Tension

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain is a great resource for learning about urgency and tension. Another great choice is A Novel Approach by Kathy Jacobson.

1. To add tension to a scene give the hero and heroine secrets, deep emotions, and let them have hidden agendas and concealed motives. There’s more than meets the eye. What lurks beneath the surface in the heart and mind of a character adds tension to the dramatic action.

2. Add sensory texture. Use every sense—touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing—to provide strong atmosphere to the scene.

In A Path toward Love Great Aunt Letty becomes Katherine’s confidant. She’s a wise old lady who’s easy to talk to. I tried to convey this sense of intimacy through the atmosphere of the first scene where they’re together.

A gust of wind puffed through the screens. Aunt Letty hustled around the cabin and pulled down the windows, chattering every step of the way.

“There. That’s so much cozier.” The fire crackled in the hearth. The yellow and orange flames leaped, sparks shot upward. The smell of smoky wood assailed Katherine’s nostrils, reminding her of bonfires on the beach.

3. Add tension through dialogue.

4. Write the scene for maximum conflict. Raise the tension, don’t lower it or neutralize it.
In this scene Katherine is setting off to secretly meet with Andrew early one morning.

She slipped out of her cabin and glanced around the yard, still deeply shaded and deserted. Rushing across the small patch of lawn to the beach, she glanced back and breathed easier when she didn’t see anyone. Without tarrying a moment longer, she hastened to the narrow strip of beach.

With no wind to ruffle the water, the lake shone like a sheet of blue tinted glass. All around its edge, forested hills and mountains rose, one behind the other, into the distance. Birds twittered in the branches of yellow birch trees that hugged the shore, and bushy-tailed squirrels skittered across the lawn and scrambled up tree trunks.

Gingerly she stepped across the coarse strip of sand into the crystal clear water, immediately invigorated by the chill. She hugged her chest as goose bumps broke out on her arms. She waded out into the chilly water and dived in. When she rounded the corner, she spotted Andrew in the distance, swimming toward Pine Point, and she began treading water, wondering if this was a mistake. She’d been certain he’d walked … what if someone saw him head out, and then her following?

She looked over her shoulder, remembering the vacant yard, the guests likely to still be slumbering for some time yet. With luck, no one had seen either of them. Committing, she settled into her breaststroke, enjoying the feel of the water and the exercise.

Ten minutes later she reached the peninsula. When she spotted Andrew resting in the sun on a giant boulder by the foot-wide strip of sandy dirt, she waved. Invigorated, but shivering, she waded toward shore.

He came forward, took her hand, and helped her over the rocks and protruding tree roots.

5. Avoid serving too much tea and cake. Build up to a conflict or confrontation. Serving food or doing something mundane isn’t going to add any tension. Personally, my characters who ‘live’ during the Gilded Age do drink lots of tea. But I try to keep them busy too so every scene isn’t chitchat over a silver teapot and a tray of petit fours.

6. Every scene should add to the urgency of the plot. That means no unnecessary car chases. Don’t add them just for the sake of revving up the excitement because if doesn’t advance the plot or increase the tension.

7. Use strong verbs and try to avoid using ‘sight’ verbs and ‘movement’ verbs too often. Glancing and walking etc. aren’t really effective unless they show the character’s emotion.

8. For greater urgency and tension stay in one character’s point of view per scene.

Remember to keep both urgency and tension appropriate to the type of story you’re writing. A sweet romance will fall flat without lots of emotional tension to keep the reader turning the pages.

How do you add urgency and tension to your stories?

If you’d like a chance to receive a copy of A Path toward Love, please leave your e-mail and a comment.


  1. Thank you for a helpful post, Cara. There are some real good tips here. I need to print a copy.

    Got the coffee pot set.


  2. Very good post. I particularly like the point about not having tea all the time - I've read a book that does that, and I couldn't work out what was wrong. You've answered the question.

  3. I had this open while I was working tonight. I kept coming back to read it and tweak my ms.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks for the great tips.

    You've got me wondering if I have too much eating in my story. I have a coffee shop where my hero likes to go, but I usually throw something into each scene there to increase the tension.
    I think I'll go back and look at those scenes again.

    Thanks again!
    Jackie L.

  5. How do I add urgency and tension to my story? Easy -- I'm half way through my summer vacay but not my book so that creates tension. My goal was to finish my the end of the summer -- there's the urgency!!! LOL

    Great post, Cara. Loved reading the snippets. You've whet my appetite for more!

  6. Good morning, Helen! Thanks for bringing the coffee. I'm definitely ready for the first cup of the day.

  7. Glad the post was helpful, Virginia.

    Iola, IMHO it's fine to set a a scene at the dinner or tea table once in a while, but watch out for too much eating and drinking. It's a static-type setting. I try to get my characters moving more. Maybe we have the tendency to have them eating a lot because that's what we do a lot! Ok, I speak for myself.

  8. I too am going to print this out for me bursting binder of "how to" that I find online (mostly Seekerville of course!)

    And Cara, I loved those modeling clay superheroes when you posted them on FB! Amazing!

  9. YES! I would very much like to win a copy of your book!
    Thank you for this book, you got my heart beating fast as I read (suspense). I also enjoyed the excerpts from your books.

    Good day Cara and Seekerville,

    ganise_4life (at) hotmail (dot) com

  10. I meant.. thank you for this post. =)

  11. Cara!

    Great tips, as usual.

    I'm in the first stages of revision on my WIP, so I have to keep all of your suggestions in mind.


  12. Jackie, with a coffee shop setting it'll be hard to keep your characters from drinking coffee and eating donuts much of the time! Keep them on their feet and busy!

  13. Kav, you're living urgency and tension! Hope you finish your book by the end of the summer or at least come close. You could write a blog about working on your goal and the difficulties of making a deadline.

  14. Debra, my husband loves to work with modeling clay. He didn't have lots of time to do it when our son was small, but now that he's retired and has a grandson, he's at it again. Even Damian is learning.

  15. Excellent, excellent reminders, Cara!! Emotional urgency is very bit as important--or more!--than the urgency of the external goal.

  16. Cara,

    Yep, this one is for the printer and fattening binder full of writing tips. Thank you!

    And I am with Debra, those figures are great looking--can you i.d. them? I am trying to make out the one on the end for my son. Make sure your dh gets his due--what a talented family!


  17. Wow, Cara. Your post makes me feel an urgent need to worry about my writing!!!!!!!!!!!

    thnx a lot!!!!

  18. Oooo. I want to read your book.

    But I want to know if Andrew chases her down as much as she tries to get to him. I guess I'll just have to read it to find out.


  19. Cara -- thank you so much for pointing out the need to use strong verbs and to stay away from simple motion verbs like walking and glancing. I need to muscle up my wording and make my characters' movements more complex! I'd love to be in your drawing.

    Susan Codone

  20. Cara, thanks for the great post. This is a printer-outer, for sure.

    Increasing the tension and urgency is something I really need to work on. In my Amish stories I try hard to make peaceful calm part of the setting, but the story has to move and make the reader care about what's happening to the characters - so I know I need to provide the twists and turns in the story to contrast against that setting.

    Just ramping up the writing another notch - this job is never boring, is it?

    Looking forward to reading your book! I love the Adirondacks setting!

  21. I'm glad you like the book excerps, Ganise.

    Hi, Rose! Have fun with your revisions. I really like to do revisions unless I'm under too much pressure.

  22. Glynna, I used to read books with little action and wonder how they could be such page turners. I finally discovered it was emotional urgency that kept them interesting. Before I'd thought it was action that kept my attention. I think emotional urgency is harder to write. Of course that depends on the writer.

  23. Great post, Cara. It will help me in writing reviews. i would love to win the novel.


  24. Jan, I think Amish books are the perfect example of stories that usually have a tranquil setting and need emotional urgency to grab your interest. A book set in a war zone would be just the opposite. Danger is built right into the plot.

  25. Mary, I don't think you have to worry about your writing!!!

  26. Piper, the super heroes are Spiderman, Venom (the purple one), Batman, new goblin (not sure about this one) and Electro. Jim and Damian made the last two together.

  27. Oooo, Cara, just LOVE getting snips from the new book, my friend -- talk about building urgency ... urgency to get my hands on it!!!

    One of the ways I like to add urgency is to end a scene with something shocking or a cliff-hanger of sorts.

    In my current WIP, I end the chapter with a coin tossing in the air, not revealing who wins the toss and the high-stakes prize until a chapter or two past, something Mary Connealy does quite well, I think.

    Great post, Cara!!


  28. I had someone just tell me I should read The Hunger Games, not because it's like...a CHRISTIAN novel or anything, but because the author just keeps upping the urgency, everytime they survive something, they immediately are faced with something WORSE. And it just grows and grows, the stakes keep being pushed higher and higher.
    It's a great example of ramping tension and building conflict.
    I haven't read it yet.

  29. I'm doing way too much 'shrugging' and 'head shaking' and 'arm crossing' in the scene I'm working on right now. I need the scene I'm working on to MOVE.
    Anytime my books has the characters DISCUSSING while they sit at a table or walk along is a MISTAKE. Where is the gunfire when I need it.

    HEY! I think I just figured out how to fix the scene.


  30. The three chapters I worked on this weekend seem to ebb and flow in urgency. That's not bad, I think, because it can't be all lights and sirens, but still I feel as though I need to tighten it and heighten the pace a bit. So this is helpful. Thanks, Cara.

  31. Patricia, according to Martha Alderson who writes The Plot Whisperer (she'll be a guest at Seekerville later in the year, I think) there are scenes where things actually go well. This is where the character and the reader take a breather. They're necessary, but you can't have too many of these kind of scenes. For the most part, we have to give our characters a rough time.

  32. Great post, Cara! Emotional urgency, for me anyway, is even more crucial to good storytelling than physical urgency.

    Mary, I've read all of the Hunger Games trilogy. It really is a page-turner, one of those stories where it's hard to turn the light out and stop reading for the night. And there was definitely emotional urgency combined with the physical and situational challenges.

    Speaking of Hunger Games, has anyone noticed the abundance of Katniss braids being sported by girls and teens these days?

  33. Hi, Marianne and Susan!

    Susan, walking around, or any physical action, is kind of pointless unless there's some emotion added in. If she's nervous then having her pace up and down the room is good because it shows her emotions in a concrete way.

  34. Connie, you'll have to read the cover to find out more about Andrew! Actually, he's her 'old flame' and the flame never died out.

  35. Cara, Excellent reminders on establishing urgency and tension in our stories. Can't wait to read A Path Toward Love!! Sounds like that path is strewn with obstacles. Love it!

    Sometimes we have to force our characters to bring secrets out into the open--that ticking bomb thing that adds dread along with urgency.


  36. Cara Lynn, what a helpful post! I've been trying to figure out how to add more urgency and tension as I work on my revisions. This post was so timely!

    I especially appreciate what you said here: "The emotional urgency comes when we, the reader, feel the characters must resolve their inner problems before it’s too late. That’s as vital as catching the thief right after he steals our purse with all our cash and our credit cards."

    Your techniques for adding tension were wonderful. Thank you so much!

  37. MARY CONNEALY--I just finished book two of the Hunger Games. The writing isn't really my style, but the author does a masterful job of keeping the tension high and throwing in the unexpected.

  38. This is excellent advise Cara. I have a little fork and spoon icon I put on every scene with food in my Excel spreadsheet. Helps me track those pesky eating scenes and cut them way back.

  39. Julie, I think cliff hangers can be internal even though I mostly think of them as external i.e. jumping off a cliff! Many of us don't have settings where jumping off a cliff would seem plausible except for Mary.

  40. Mary and Myra, I haven't read the Hunger Games, but Jim read all of the books and really liked them. If I can get his Kindle away from him, maybe I'll read them too.

  41. Thanks! This is helpful.

  42. This comment has been removed by the author.

  43. Because of the tension and urgency in my life right now I read this twice to get it into my head a little better. Maybe I'll print it out or remember it in the archives.
    Now I need to know what happens in the rest of your story maybe I can win a book.


  44. This looks like such a great book!


  45. Janet, the 'ticking time bomb' is one of the best ways to create urgency and tension. I use it a lot. I find a lot of tension in my life actually does come from ticking time bombs! Deadlines are one...

  46. Hi, Jeanne! I've never really wanted to read the Hunger Games, but I think maybe I should for the examples of creating urgency and tension.

  47. Tina, I love how you keep track of dinner scenes! I should try that.

  48. Great post Cara! Perfect timing too. It's just what I need to get my story moving again. I've been in such a rut.

    No need to put my name in the drawing. My copy of the book is 'in the mail' :)

  49. Thank you for this very helpful post, Cara---another Keeper! ~ Had to smile at your "tea and cake" advice--excellent reminder. ~ Reading snippets of your story really makes me yearn to find out what happened! ~ Thanks again for sharing with us, and enjoy the Peach Shortcake I brought this afternoon (served with real whipped cream). Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

  50. This is definitely a keeper post Cara! Thank you. I always feel like I've came to class when I visit Seekerville (daily). :)

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  51. Hi Mary, Heather and Marissa! Thanks for stopping by. Also, hello Patti Jo, Jamie and Cindy!

    I'm saying a group hello because my computer keeps freezing on me and I'm going to give it a rest for a little while.

  52. Cara, I have read all your other books and really enjoyed them! Am anxious to read this one as well so count me in!

  53. Tension is so important to a book. I first tried writing a mystery so I always try to end a chapter with a cliffhanger of some sort. I can see what you mean with the tea drinking, it can get a little flat Very quickly. I will have to look through my book for any spots where the action lags way too much.

  54. Oh, I'm late to this party! Csra, I thoroughly enjoyed your explanation of urgency and building tension. That's such a hard concept at times, to have real things happen that aren't just page fillers.

    I find that if there's enough emotion between the players/characters, it's easier for me to hike the tension. So whether it's the h/h dealing with their conflict or the heroine dealing with family or the hero being hounded by his past or raucous neighbors, if that action is reflective of the character's inner turmoil, it helps drive the point home.

    I'm tired and that may sound stupider than I meant it to.

    But I brought Magnum ice cream bars for everyone because they're melt-in-your-mouth good!

    And I'm praying for so many things today, but included in that are our friends at RWA in Anaheim (that's in California, I hear) that their conference be a wonderful experience all around.

    I'm hoping for RWA in Atlanta next year. That's one of my goals.

    Try the almond magnums.... they're amazing!

  55. You know who did a great job of staging a restaurant story without bogging down in eating? That darned Missy Tippens. What a wonderful book, I loved it, loved it, loved it and the puppy ate the first copy AND he ate my original copy of Karen White's "Falling Home" one of my favorite books of all time, so the puppy (who is not dead, btw) destroyed two of my faves and I bought replacements. And then I lost Missy's half-way through and bought it again. So I have 2.5 copies of Missy's book "Her Unlikely Family"...

    Now that's a friend!

  56. Cara, I wished I'd gotten to this earlier. I've never thought of "emotional urgency" when writing a story. This is a wonderful post.

  57. Ruthy, thanks for the ice cream bars. Unfortunately I'm still hungry for something sweet.

    I might go to RWA in Atlanta next year because it's within driving distance. I went with GCC friends in 2006.

    Thanks, Walt. Emotional urgency drives the story's action.

  58. I like the thought of strong verbs. Too much tea is certainly not terribly exciting.,


  59. Enter me!
    I would love to win this book!!
    God Bless!
    Sarah Richmond

  60. Great post Cara. I'd love the opportunity to win your new book.

    Jodie Wolfe

  61. Great teaching post, Cara. Another one from you to save. Among other points you made,I especially needed to hear that "every" scene must add to the urgency of the plot. Looking forward to soon getting into A path Toward Love. Thank you for my copy.

  62. E-mail is sheliarha64@yahoo.com and I would love to win the book

  63. Thanks for the chance to win!