Last time, we talked about tension. Tension is the most necessary ingredient in any fiction you write. Click to tweet. Using Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction as a resource, we covered Tension in Dialogue, Tension in Action, and Tension in Exposition. Today, we’ll look at sprucing up low-tension scenes and avoiding the traps.
The Weather Trap
“It was a dark and stormy night…” When we tell ghost stories that’s how we always start them, but to start a scene, using weather doesn’t usually work. “Weather openings are common––and dull. At my office, we toss them aside with grunts of impatience. ‘Weather opening’ somebody mutters, and we all nod. Most writers are trying to use the weather as foreshadowing, a hint of storms to come. That’s fine, but most of the time tension wafts away.” Pg. 204
Using several examples, Maass explains that to use the weather as atmosphere doesn’t work unless it’s essential, or a reflection of something going on inwardly with the characters. In my novel, “Meghan’s Choice,” I have a tornado. That’s weather. But I use it as a plot device to move the story along and develop inward characteristics within Meghan Gallagher, especially.
“Describe the plain old weather and who cares? Provoke anxiety in the readers first and then…” Pg. 206
The Setting Trap
“Nothing is so sad as an empty amusement park. And no amusement park is so sad as Coney Island. Once the world’s playground, it is no longer the world’s anything; not even important enough to be forgotten.” A quote from Reed Farrel Coleman’s mystery novel Soul Patch. Pg. 206
Often, a scene is set by describing the setting, what it looks like, are there mountains, is there a lake, is it the ocean, or a prairie. But describing a scene in and of itself is boring, according to Maass. But he singled out this opening as different. Why?
“…is it anger – that the narrator feels about the state of this one-tine seaside playground. Is this narrator dispassionate? Hardly…Tension exists not in the place itself but inside the one observing it.”
The secret of making backstory work is to use the past, such as a flashback or a small amount of backstory entered, to create present conflict. Interestingly enough, Maass follows this by bashing the “scene-sequel” teaching. “The theory goes that after a significant story development, the protagonist (and the readers) needs a pause to digest the significance of this new situation, to make decisions and gather resolve to go forward.” Maass calls that “aftermath.” And he says he doesn’t believe it’s necessary these days. “The human brain moves faster than any author’s fingers can type…I find that most aftermath is the easiest material in any manuscript to skim. It lacks tension.”
But it doesn’t have to lack tension. In my story, “Meghan’s Choice,” I use a recurring dream to show my cowboy leading man to have a strong faith, but his soul is wounded by guilt. His backstory, which comes out in pieces, shows that even though he has faith in God, he’s still an introvert, a drifter, until he meets Meghan.
“…emotional conflict, competing desires…” These are the tool you can use to avoid the backstory trap. I used emotional conflict in my novel.
Steps to Avoiding Low-Tension Traps
- Find any passage in your manuscript that’s opens with weather or landscape, backstory, aftermath, travel, description, or foreshadowing.
- Determine what your POV character feels most strongly here. Write down the opposite of it.
- Without looking at your original draft, rewrite this passage and fold in the conflicting emotions you’ve identified.
- Find twenty more places in your manuscript and repeat the above steps.
“Tension traps occur in every manuscript.” Readers skim over them, you don’t want that. Transform your fiction with tension. Click to tweet
What about you? Do you skim over descriptive passages and cut to the dialogue. I admit, the more I read, the more I skim. Leave a comment and let me know.
Next time: Creating tension where there is none