Monday, May 20, 2013

Winner! ... and a Tension #WritingTip

First and foremost, Janet and I want to congratulate

on winning our ice cream contest giveaway!


Congratulations, Susanne! You can email me (a2sonnichsen (at) gmail (dot) com) or Janet to claim your prize. You can choose two 10-page critiques -- one from each of us!-- or a gift card to buy books. 

I thought today it might be fun to share some writing wisdom I learned at the recent SCBWI Western Washington conference last month.

I went to a session on pacing ... and we talked about tension.

I went to a session on plotting ... and we talked about tension.

I went to a session on characterizations ... and we talked about tension.

*Personal share alert* With my last book (which is now shelved) I got a Revise and Resubmit from an amazing editor who said I needed to work on PACING.  

So, I worked on pacing. I cut out more than a thousand words that I thought might be unnecessary. I made sure I was jumping into the middle of scenes instead of meandering my way into them. I mistakenly thought that's all pacing was--making sure your story flowed smoothly.

Don't get me wrong, these measures did improve my novel, but, when I heard back from the editor after resubmitting, her response was the same. There was still a pacing problem, dang it!

So, how thrilled was I to arrive at this conference and find such an emphasis on pacing in so many of the sessions I attended? (Answer: incredibly thrilled!) And I learned something that may be old news to all of you, but was new news to me: Pacing is set by the amount of tension on each page.

Now I'd heard about tension and I'd heard about pacing, but I'd never put the two together.

The more you increase tension, the faster readers will turn pages. 

Lower tension = a slower read

Lit agent Abigail Samoun talked about identifying the master tempo of your story on a scale of 1-10.

1= Tortoise slow
10= Hare fast

Few stories will survive at a master tempo of 10. Probably even fewer stories will survive with a master tempo of 1. Most of us write somewhere in the middle. While the tempo goes up and down, depending on the scene, we have to be aware of our master tempo. We also have to be aware of the doldrums in our books, the places where the tension drops below our master tempo for too long. These are the boring bits, where readers are likely to put our books down and never pick them up again. 

Author Robin LaFevers suggested assigning each scene a tempo number and then plotting those numbers on a graph to identify the slow points in your novels. 

Remember, low-tension numbers aren't always bad. Sometimes our readers need a breather, especially in a fast-paced book, to get their bearings and connect to the characters more deeply. What we want to avoid are those spots (saggy middles, anyone?) where we write scene after scene of our characters experiencing little or no tension.

A few tension killers:
  • Description
  • Backstory (Challenge: try taking all backstory out of the first 50 pages of your manuscript)
  • Character sits and thinks
A lovely environment for tension:

A DIFFICULT DECISION: when a character is of two minds. Tension festers well in a complicated problem ... and that's GOOD!

Now repeat after me: I will add more tension to my novel. I will add more tension to my novel.

Any other thoughts? Was any of this new or striking or am I just repeating the same old, same old?


  1. Terrific information. It kinda of clicked for me now. I knew the description/thinking things slow pacing down, but thought that speeding it up was more just the action. Things happening. And dialogue.

    But this makes total sense.

    I will definitely look at my scenes in this way, maybe try plot them out, to see what it looks like.

    1. Yay! I'm so glad this helps someone else besides me. :)

  2. Wonderful break down, Amy. Tension is what compels the reader. So why do I forget that when I'm writing? Ha! Thanks!

  3. What a great post! I can use this right now in my revisions. I just gave a CP advice on ways to add tension in her book, but I struggle doing it in my own! I will definitely be working on this. :)

  4. Hi, Amy. Thank you! I just left a comment on Janet's blog saying that I was choosing the surprise package. I like surprises! : )

    1. Awesome! We will be surprising you with that soon. Congratulations on winning! (I left a comment on your blog just as you were leaving a comment on mine ... funny!)

  5. Yes, tension!!! I now try to have micro-tension on every page (even if it means indecision on the character's part). Donald Maass talks about it beautifully in his books.

    So happy "tension" kept popping out at you. It was like that the year I listened to Jay Asher. He talked about suspense but it was tension ... and it really make me think about how best to incorporate it into my own stories.

  6. Sounds like a great conference. It's always worth your time and money when you walk out with something helpful.

    Abigail was my first ever conference critique, back when she was an editor. She is a smart cookie. :)

  7. What an awesome way to think of pacing! I'd never really put that together either. Thanks so much for sharing this tip!

  8. Congratulations to Susanne! I love that idea of a master tempo.