Revision 06.4.2 – Tensionicide: Don’t Chicken Out


Some scenes overwhelm with emotion or are so difficult to write that the writer flinches, and jumps to after them to recap. In many cases, you couldn’t do a worse thing to your fiction.

Actual Workshop Examples:

–Lee built up a romance through 80,000 words of Machiavellian heroic fantasy. Friends of the duo scheme to throw them together alone, at last. We’re ready to see passions spark, obligations thunder, walls fall, declarations made. We get — a jump to the next day, everything settled, everyone happy, that reads like a chapter’s missing.

–Taylor put the hero in rivalry with his chief helper, which had us wondering if the helper would turn on the hero or sabotage him. Big stakes, heightened reader attention. Then a chapter starts with a paragraph saying, “during the last few nights they had settled their difficulties, and now everything ran smoothly, with X now a loyal lieutenant.”

Readers want to live in the character’s skin. You have to give them pay-offs after build-ups. Yet some scenes most of us don’t want to go through graphically.

How do you tell the difference?

If you have built up a peak of tension on a central relationship and some scene changes or resolves the tension, then you must Show it. If the scene is set-up or background, then it may be optional. If a scene is markedly unpleasant to experience (rapes and tortures especially fall in this class) you may still want to slide by them to the aftermath, which is usually where the inner drama and reflection lies, anyway.

Do remember your genre. Horror stories must contain higher levels of horrific stuff, cozy mysteries almost none. Gritty cynical litfi may concentrate on noir material, while warm-hearted mainstream domestic drama keeps it way off stage.

One reason for tensionicide is that Big Scenes are difficult to write. Lee never read romances, and apparently had no clue how to present this emotional unveiling, it just had to be done for the plot to continue. Taylor couldn’t figure how two rival bulls could settle this amicably and tried to dance past it with a resolution by fiat. Neither worked: the only fix is to Show. Otherwise, right here the reader leaves.

Catch tensionicide by looking for any time you Tell rather than Show a very emotional scene, or one that transforms a relationship. An emotionally or technically difficult scene can also halt a manuscript in its tracks for a railroad writer. A good critiquer will react to the missing scene with a squawk at being robbed: readers do fill in our blind spots.

2 responses »

  1. But then, why would a writer shy away from tension scene, where important things happen to the characters? Those are the best scenes to write. Granted, they’re tough most of the time, but – boy – that’s the fun part about writing 🙂

    • I think it’s often that the writer doesn’t “know” how to write that kind of scene – like they’re used to doing action or intrigue – or they’re really repelled at doing the scene or afraid to be that revealing. It’s also often the sign of a plot hole that they can’t make such a scene happen in their head, like they feel the characters couldn’t resolve the situation in any way they can imagine.

      Me, I think writing is intellectual mountain climbing. Tough is satisfying!

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