Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

For more great writing tips from James Scott Bell, be sure to check out his books Conflict & Suspense, Writing Fiction For All You're Worth, Plot & Structure, Revision and Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers

Stretching the Tension
by James Scott Bell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And from the shower scene on, people were screaming their heads off.

I'm glad my first exposure to the movie was not on television. I got to see it uncut, which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene. But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without interruption.

The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn't sleep for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

Set up the tension

Before you can stretch anything, of course, you need raw material. You don't fashion a clay pot without clay. The clay for a novelist is trouble. The question you have to keep asking is this: What problem has the potential to lay some serious hurt on my character?

If your lead character has misplaced his pajamas, you could write several pages about it, throwing obstacle after obstacle in his path (a roller skate, a phone call, the postman ringing twice). But the hunt is unlikely to engage your readers. There isn't enough trouble at stake at the end of the line (unless, of course, your hero has hidden the mafia's money in the pajama bottoms and has five minutes to find it).

So the first rule is simple: Always make sure scenes of tension provide something to be tense about.

When you've got a handle on the trouble for your character in a given scene, you're ready to stretch it. You can do that with two aspects of your fiction---the physical and the emotional. Each presents an opportunity to transform your story from the mundane to the thrilling.

Stretch the physical

Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch. The way to do it is simple--slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you are watching a movie scene in slow motion.

Then, as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.

Let's say you have a woman being stalked by a man with assault on his mind. It could start this way:

Mary took a step back. [action]
"Don't be afraid," the man said. [dialogue]
How did he get in here? she wondered. The doors are all locked. [thought]
He swayed where he stood [action], and she could smell the beer on his breath. [description]
"Get out," she said. [dialogue]
He laughed and slid toward her. [action]

Want to stretch even more? Good. Do it. Each item--action, thoughts, dialogue, description--can be extended:

Mary took a step back, bumping the end table. A vase crashed to the floor. [action]
"Don't be afraid," the man said. "I don't want to hurt you, Mary. I want to be your friend." [dialogue]
How did he get in here? she wondered. The doors are all locked. And then she remembered she'd left the garage door open for Johnny. Stupid, stupid. You deserve this, you always deserve what you get. [thoughts]

Extending beats can even stretch tension when a character is alone. The secret, once again, is in the set-up material.

In One Door Away From Heaven (Bantam), Dean Koontz writes a scene early in the book where Leilani, a 9-year-old girl, walks through a trailer home to find her drugged out mother. Koontz sets the scene up with this:

Saturated by silence, the house brimmed also with an unnerving expectancy, as though some bulwark were about to crack, permitting a violent flood to sweep everything away.

From there, for seven pages, Leilani continues, step by step. The suspense builds until the revelation at the end of the scene. This section, which many writers would have dealt with in a paragraph, adds enormously to the tension of the whole book.

Your ability to orchestrate beats so they conform to the tone and feel of the story you're telling is one of the most important skills you can develop. Ask yourself these three key questions before you write a tense scene involving physical action:

1. What is the worst thing from the outside that can happen to my character? This may be in the form of another person, a physical object or a circumstance outside the character's control.

2. What is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene? You may come up with an instant answer. Don't stop there--raise the stakes a notch. This may suggest further possibilities.

3. Have I sufficiently set up the danger for the readers before the scene begins? Remember, they need to know what's at stake for your characters before they start worrying.

Stretch the emotional

A scene does not have to involve physical peril to have tension worth stretching. Trouble can be emotional as well.

When a character is in the throes of emotional turmoil, don't make things easy on her. We humans are a circus of doubts and anxieties. Play them up! Give us the whole show.

In the first chapter of The Deep End of the Ocean (Penguin) by Jacquelyn Mitchard, protagonist Beth's young son, Ben, disappears in a crowded hotel. The next 40 pages cover hours, not days. Emotional beat upon emotional beat is rendered as Beth experiences the various manifestations of shock, fear, grief and guilt.

For example, when the detective, Candy Bliss, suggests Beth lie down, Mitchard gives us this paragraph:

Beth supposed she should lie down; her throat kept filling with nastiness and her stomach roiled. But if she lay down, she wanted to explain to Candy Bliss, who was holding out her hand, it would be deserting Ben. Did Detective Bliss think Ben was lying down? If Beth ate, would he eat? She should not do anything Ben couldn't do or was being prevented from doing. Was he crying? Or wedged in a dangerous and airless place? If she lay down, if she rested, wouldn't Ben feel her relaxing, think she had decided to suspend her scramble toward him, the concentrated thrust of everything in her that she held out to him like a life preserver? Would he relax then, turn in sorrow toward a bad face, because his mama had let him down?

Notice how Mitchard uses physical descriptions that show rather than tell: "throat kept filling with nastiness"; "stomach roiled."

She places us in Beth's mind as her thoughts come one after another. Then Mitchard returns to the action of the scene. And so the beats continue.

To stretch inner tension, ask these questions to get your raw material:

*What is the worst thing from the inside that can happen to my character? This encompasses a whole universe of mental stakes. Hint: Look to the character's fears.

*What is the worst information my character can receive? Some secret from the past or fact that rocks her world can be stalking her through the scene.

*Have I sufficiently set up the depth of emotion for the readers before the scene? We need to care about your lead characters before we care about their problems.

Stretch the big and small

Think of tension stretching as an elongation of bad times. This can be on a large scale, as in Jeffery Deaver's A Maiden's Grave (Signet), a novel about a one-day hostage crisis. Each chapter is marked by a clock reading, such as 11:02 a.m. The chapters then give the full range of dramatic beats.

Tension also can be stretched on a microlevel. Usually these can be added when you're revising. You come across beats that pass a little too quickly for the rhythm you're trying to create.

In my one of my novels featuring an early 1900s Los Angeles lawyer, Kit Shannon, Kit shares a meal with the temperance champion, Carry Nation. The first draft of the scene read like this:

Their laughter was interrupted by the figure of the chief of police, Horace Allen. He stood at their table with one of his uniformed officers. Kit knew immediately this was not a social call.
"Kathleen Shannon." The chief's voice was thunderous.
"Good evening, Chief."

I felt the moment, for dramatic purposes, needed a little more time. I rewrote it adding more beats, such as the chief's voice causing all conversation to cease within the place:

Kit felt the silence, sensed the social opprobrium flowing her way from the gentile patrons. A pleasant evening was being rudely interrupted, and that was not why people came to the Imperial.

The best way to get the right amount of tension into your novel is to stretch it as much as possible in your first draft and then look at what you've got.

Go for it, and don't worry about overdoing it or wearing out the reader. You have that wonderful thing called revision to save you. If you write hot, packing scenes with physical and emotional tension, you always can revise cool, and scale back on rewrite. That's much easier to do than trying to heat things up the second time around.

Of course not every scene should be a big, suspenseful set piece. A novel can only sustain a few of those and you want them to stand out. But any scene can be stretched beyond its natural comfort zone. Get in the habit of finding the cracks and crevices where troubles lay and burrowing in to see what's there. You may strike gold. And your Readers will be thankful for the effort.

James Scott BellJAMES SCOTT BELL is a bestselling suspense author and former fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine (following in the footsteps of his first mentor, Lawrence Block). He has written two bestselling craft books in the Writers Digest series Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing. His novels include Try Dying, Deceived, and Breach of Promise.

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. His website is