Wednesday Guest Blogger

A long time ago I was taught an excellent lesson: Surround yourself with smart people and listen.

My Wednesday guest blogger is such a person. We met a few years ago when I was a stumbling bumbling writer. In that time I have listened and I have learned.

I am really happy that she found the time to be a guest on my blog.

Molly, take it way…..


Thumbscrews: How and When to Ratchet up the Tension in Stories

by M. K. Martin

How many times have you gotten feedback along these lines: “I liked it, but it needed more tension.”?

Yeah, we all have.

So what do you do? Add some gunfights, maybe a car-chase or a natural disaster. When in doubt, call in the ninjas…

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….ah, not that one. She’s busy writing.

But here’s the thing – you don’t always need tension in every scene. At least, not OMG-I’m-gonna-die action/adventure tension.

You’re overall goal (assuming you are writing a story based in western culture) is to follow Freytag’s Pyramid.

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  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Denouement

Another way to say this is to paraphrase John Hartness: You put [the cat] into a tree, you light the tree on fire, you get [the cat] out of the tree.

Each scene should follow this pattern, and so should each story act, and so should the whole story. You end up with a bunch of jagged peaks and valleys of tension. It’s not a straight shot up to Tension Plateau.

Before you rush to fix a “slow” scene, assess the scene, find its motivation, employ the appropriate approach to “break” the scene and get it to do what you want: Advance the story, reveal characters’ inner selves, keep readers interested.

Wait, wait. What’s with all the lingo?

Let me explain.

I used to be an interrogator. I was trained to study the enemy and determine what approach might work best to “break” them. Guess what, folks? Using the right approach to your scene is just as critical for you writers. Just don’t try waterboarding your WIP.

Let’s take it a step at time:

  1. Assess the scene
    1. Why is the tension lacking? Is there too much description, exposition, backstory? Does the reader not care enough about the character because they’re not very complex/relatable or the reader doesn’t know them?
      1. Could that information be moved to a different scene(s)? Could that information be given in scene, rather than summary/narration? Do you really need that information? (Hint: probably not all of it. Sorry)
      2. Flesh out your character(s). Give the reader a reason to root for them. Don’t make them too perfect too early.
    2. Scene’s motivation
      1. Exposition
        1. Give some backstory, setting, character info
        2. Make promises about the future of the story
  • Put the cat up the tree
  1. Rising Action
    1. Delve into backstory, complicate character interactions/emotions, expand setting and/or introduce new ones as characters move around
    2. Fulfill some, not all, promises made to establish reader’s trust in your writing
  • Set the tree on fire (OH NO! Fluffy!!!!!)
  1. Climax
    1. Backstory comes into conflict with main story, characters conflict with each other and/or setting
    2. Fulfill most (all if a standalone novel) of the promises made earlier in the story
  • Get Fluffy out of the burning tree
  1. Falling Action
    1. Characters react to climax and its consequences
    2. Explain resolutions, characters get their comeuppance good and bad
  • Cuddle Fluffy, poor babykins, oh it was so scary, yes it was
  1. Denouement
    1. Mirror beginning to show comparison between old world order and newly established order. Single > Couple, Hobbit > Hero, Farm Hand > Jedi, Child > Adult, Mild Mannered > Spandex Aficionado
    2. Explain any unresolved promises or issues (mostly, you tease!), set up future troubles (if series)
  • Plant new tree and hope Fluffy doesn’t notice
  1. “Break” the scene by applying the correct approach, whether that means adding information, action, tension, or cats
    1. Start, as all good interrogators do, with the Direct. Tell the story. Don’t get fancy. If it’s working, let it work. Until you have completed your first draft, don’t tinker. Write yourself a note if you come up with a brilliant idea and put it in later. Finish your freaking first draft first!
    2. Add the appropriate kind of tension to flat/slow scenes. Again, not everything needs to be a heart-pounding thrill ride.
      1. Foreshadowing – this kind of tension works in the beginning of the story. It’s threats, danger, and promises the reader knows about. Depending on POV, the characters may not know. For example, we know what will happen to the Titanic, but Jack and Rose do not.
      2. Character conflict, misunderstandings, different agendas. In other words, “Let them fight!” This works best in the middle and climax of the story
  • Love stories – get the wrong people together, keep the lovers/loved ones apart. Works throughout the story. Note: this doesn’t have to be only romantic love. This can be friends (Frodo and Sam) or relatives (Katniss and Prim).
  1. But Wait! Think of the peaceful meadow with the mournful hero turning to walk off into the sunset, leaving a fresh grave behind and just as they disappear over the horizon a hand shoots up through the dirt, fingers clutching at nothing. This works at the very end of a book in a series as a means of foreshadowing story problems in the next book. Do not use this is a standalone novel or people will be mad at you. You’ve been warned.

And so endeth today’s lesson. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions.

How do you deal with slow scenes?

Bio: M. K. Martin is a motorcycle-riding, linguistics nerd. A former Army interrogator with a degree in psychology, she uses her unique knowledge and skill set to create smart, gritty stories that give readers a glimpse into the darker corners of the human mind. Find out more at

Her viral-apocalypse novel, Survivors’ Club is now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and at various indie bookstores.

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