In this post, we’re taking a look at how to build a sequence of scenes to maximise tension and keep readers hooked to the end. We’re using our old friends, Simon and Julia Specimen, from previous posts. As before, we have two POVs, so we will be switching between the two.
To start with, the notes for our first draft version of the sequence run something like this:
It’s the day of the family gathering before Simon leaves for Antarctica – Julia and Simon at breakfast – atmosphere strained and tense. Simon goes out to work – his day progresses as usual. He has an important meeting; goes to lunch with his best buddy; they talk about him leaving for Antarctica. Julia is in her garden; she chats to the neighbour, talks to her daughter, reminisces about her youth/early romance with Simon. Simon arrives home and goes up to have a shower as he always does. He’s a creature of habit. Sometimes Julia hates him for it. This is one of those times. She makes a snap decision – he won’t leave her – she won’t let him. Julia grabs a knife and rushes upstairs.
Let’s analyse the sequence above from the point of view of building tension. First of all, showing the general ‘averageness’ of the day could be a problem; either we are in danger of repeating information from earlier in the book, or the reader will be wondering why this information wasn’t given before now. Instead, we should look at the sequence carefully and pick out what is actually interesting for the reader. How about the last sentences: ‘Julia makes a snap decision’ and so on? The question is how can we make the whole day as interesting as these sentences and really build tension for the reader?
- Reader knowledge: keep your reader level or one step ahead of your POV character.
We discussed reader knowledge in Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs. So putting that into practice: what if Julia’s decision to kill comes earlier on? In this case, the reader is level with Julia and ahead of Simon. Rather than giving the game away, this cranks up reader anticipation.Once we are aware of Julia’s intentions, average and everyday events take on a much greater significance and provide a dramatic contrast to the possible fate awaiting Simon at home that evening.
So now our first scene looks something more like this:
Early morning: as Simon’s car disappears down the driveway, Julia unloads the dishwasher to make room for the breakfast dishes. She stares at the butcher’s knife in her hand and makes her decision: she will not allow Simon to leave her. She will kill him that evening before the planned family gathering to wish him well before he leaves for the Antarctica posting.
Now that we’ve grabbed our readers’ attention, each subsequent scene needs to move the story along. But how do you make plot choices which do just that?
- Forward momentum: time and movement
Generally speaking, each scene should move on in time, bringing us closer to the climax of the sequence. Or perhaps the movement is geographical: a step further along in a character’s physical journey? Either way, actual time passing or physical movement towards a particular place or point in time helps to build a sense of forward momentum in a narrative.
- Emotional momentum
And forward momentum shouldn’t be confined to the physical. Each new scene should move the story along emotionally or psychologically by providing readers with new character information or events which increase their sense of anticipation. So, let’s switch to Simon’s POV and ask ourselves what is important about his day, given that we now know what Julia is planning for him? Let’s move him on in time, place and give our reader some new information which will ratchet up the suspense:
It’s mid-morning: Simon’s workplace. He’s in the middle of a good-humoured, boozy, leaving do and happily accepting good wishes for the future from his soon-to-be-ex work colleagues. Mixed feelings about leaving work, but he’s excited. He’s looking forward to the evening – after tonight everything will be resolved and he will be free of Julia and their problems.
Everything in Simon’s world is rosy, because, he, unlike the reader, has no idea of what Julia has planned for him. It’s this emotional juxtaposition of character ignorance and reader knowledge that keeps the reader on tenterhooks.
- Put the lid on the emotional/psychological pressure cooker and turn to maximum.
We’re back with Julia; so how do we push the story along for her? Should we show her weeding the garden and waving to the nosy neighbour as usual in a bid to keep up the pretence of normality? But it’s no longer a normal day for Julia, so, instead, let’s twist a few psychological screws and see what happens. Let’s put her in a position where she has an opportunity to reveal, or is in danger of revealing, what is going on inside her:
Early afternoon: Julia’s list of things to do for the party lies on the kitchen table unread. Her eldest daughter, Poppy, calls. She wants to come round to help Julia out with the preparations for the family get-together. Julia has to stop her. Poppy senses her mother’s turmoil, but she thinks it is because Julia is upset at Simon leaving. In fact, there’s a hurricane blowing inside Julia and the effort not to vent her true anger and bitterness at Simon’s betrayal is almost unbearable.
Poppy’s call raises both external and internal obstacles to Julia’s plan: there is a moment where she could change her mind, or be found out and, as readers, we are wondering whether Julia’s resolve will hold, will she crack and reveal all or will Poppy realise in time that something is terribly wrong with her mother?
TO BE CONTINUED