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 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.
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?
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