This weekend I’m attending When Words Collide, a wonderful writer and reader’s convention in Calgary. I can’t wait! I go every year and always learn a lot. In addition I’m going to be on a panel called Creating Tension. Here’s a preview of what I’m going to say:
1. Hooks and cliffhangers. Everyone knows that your novel should start with a hook, but it’s even better if every chapter and every scene begins with a mini-hook and ends with a mini-cliffhanger. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. The chapters always ended with Nancy in trouble of some kind.
2. Conflict. I know this seems obvious, but, yes, there should be conflict in every scene. Even a quiet scene between two friends can have conflict, provided they both want something different. I once wrote a book where I deliberately gave the heroine a conflict with every other character she encountered.
3. High stakes, both public and personal stakes. What’s the difference? The public stakes in a thriller might be a madman threatening to blow up a building. The private stakes may be that the heroine’s grandmother is trapped in that very building. Your novel should have both kinds. When revising, try to raise the stakes.
4. Use the Scene Question (sometimes also called Dramatic question) and Scene Answer to add punch to your scenes. During revision, I hunt for what the scene question is and move it up in the text so that the reader naturally poses this question to themselves. Sometimes the scene question is quite simple. In a fight scene, it’s Will the protagonist successfully repel this attack? In a different scene it might be something more subtle like: Will the princess persuade her handmaid to spy for her?
The scene answer should either be No, AND or Yes, BUT therefore complicating matters for the hero even more. For example, in the aforementioned fight scene, the protagonist could lose the fight and wake to find themselves a prisoner. Or the protagonist could win the fight but kill their opponent therefore losing the opportunity to question them about the villain’s plans. Either way, their situation is worse off than at the start of the scene.
If you have any tips, post them in the comments!