Writing Tense Scenes

So you’re writing a scene in your novel and you really want this moment to get your reader’s heart hammering. Here are eight practical strategies to help you can achieve that.

Raise the stakes for that particular scene

The higher and more immediate the stakes are, the more tension readers feel. Put your characters in situations where they have to make a hard decision or perform a hard action right away, and make it clear that if they fail, something disastrous will happen as a consequence.

Focus on action and dialogue

Action and dialogue are the two main vehicles of tension. Minimize description, thought-processes, exposition, etc. as much as possible.

Shorten your sentences

Short sentences convey tension more than long ones because they quicken the pace of the scene. Long sentences force the reader to slow down, so cut, cut, cut.

Eliminate subject nouns and pronouns

Remove subjects (whether nouns, proper nouns, or pronouns) to create punch-packing sentences. For example:

“Curtis locked eyes with the man trying to kill him. He bellowed. Charged. Swung his fist.”

Force the reader to pause and absorb the tension packed into each word. Be careful, though, as using this technique too often may be distracting. Blake Crouch uses this method a lot in the Wayward Pines trilogy.

Use strong action verbs

Eliminate linking verbs, auxiliary verbs, and passive voice verbs as much as possible for maximum tension. Choose action verbs that specify the exact meaning of what you want to convey.

“Curtis ran dashed across the rooftop. He was heading headed straight for the assassin.” 

Withhold information as long as possible

The unknown is one of the keys to tension in a scene. If there’s a plot point or piece of information that relates to the conflict/stakes in a big way, keep the reader ignorant for as long as the plot allows.

Lead up to a specific conclusion

Tension increases when the reader knows something big is coming, and tense scenes need purpose. If you hint at a twist/reveal, be sure to deliver. A tense scene without a satisfying ending is like telling a child to close his eyes and then not giving him the surprise.

Give readers privileged information

If the reader knows something significant that the character doesn’t, they’ll feel tension for the character. Aim for the classic “Don’t go there! Don’t you know that…?” reaction.

These are just some of the ways you can increase the tension in your novel’s scenes. Try them out, combine them, and find what works best for you.

In the meantime, drop a comment below with your thoughts, and don’t forget to subscribe! Write on, friend.

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