Top Three Tips for Creating Tension
Guest Post by Sam Blake,
author of LITTLE BONES
Crime writing is all about tension. It’s about trying to achieve that page turning quality that makes you want to read on even though the alarm clock’s telling you it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’ve got to get up at six!
Reading is crucial to writing – reading gets you into the mechanics of a book to understand how it is made, how the writer develops the story and delivers it to keep the reader, literally on the edge of their seat. The very best writers appear to do it effortlessly but like anything, it takes time to make things look easy, and to get to that point means putting many thousands of words on the page to find your voice and style. If Malcom Gladwell is right in his book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to reach the tipping point for success – that’s an awful lot of words.
Little Bones is the fifth book I’ve written – and finished, I don’t know how many partials are sitting on my computer, ideas that started but for whatever reason I didn’t get to finish. I had to finish Little Bones though, because I didn’t know until I was writing a key scene at the end of the book how the baby’s bones that Detective Garda Cathy Connolly finds in the hem of a wedding dress - during what appears to be a routine break in - got there!
Over the years, like all writers I’ve read a lot of books, I’m a total crime addict, and I’m continually fascinated by the writing process. So what are the key things I think about that I hope will keep my reader hooked? How do I create tension?
1) Flawed characters that throw up questions – story is about character, and as Robert McKee says, it’s about character’s reaction to each other and to events. Perfect characters are boring to read and boring to write. Understanding characters completely, knowing their fears, the secret stuff they don’t want anyone to know is vital to giving them three dimensions and life on the page. In Little Bones Cat Connolly is only twenty four, she’s a kickboxing champion, she’s strong and determined, but she’s also an impetuous risk taker. When she’s up against it she will follow her heart over her head, do the right thing rather than the sensible thing, even if it means putting herself in the line of fire. The reader can never be totally sure what she’s going to do next, and how that will affect her and the people around her. At the start of Little Bones we discover that taking a risk and getting a bit carried away has left her very single and very pregnant. Who’s the father? What will she do? Cathy’s personal problems add an element of tension to a story that for her is both personal and ultimately devastating.
2) Keeping the pace fast, keeping the action going is crucial to keeping the pages turning. Lee Child is a master of short clipped sentences and that’s a great way to keep the pace moving and build tension. Cliff hangers at the end of each chapter write themselves when there’s a lot happening fast and are a sure way to make the reader need to read on. Robert van Gelder, writing for The New York Times in 1934, noted that Somerset Maugham mentions Anton Checkov’s advice in his preface to East and West, his then-new collection of short stories, “This experience, as [Maugham] now says, taught him to leave out everything that did not serve the dramatic value of his story, to take heart Chekhov's advice to Schoukin: ‘Everything that has no relation to the story must be ruthlessly thrown away.’” Keeping it lean, keeps it fast.
3) Foreshadowing is a vital tool in the crime writer’s arsenal. Dripping detail essential to the plot builds a solid and convincing narrative and when the end comes the reader has an ‘oh yes’ moment when they realise the clues where there all along. Equally the crime fiction reader is sharp and experienced in the genre and has an expectation that the writer will deliver - as playwright and short story writer Checkov said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." For me, not knowing the answer to the key question in Little Bones meant that I had to trust the characters to guide me, trust that they had left the answers woven in to the threads of their appearances, and thankfully they had. When I went back and re-read it, I could see the markers.
As you write you learn more about the process, about character and ways to keep the reader not only guessing but on the edge of their seat. In Little Bones there are several subplots that I hope keep the story moving. We meet the childless Emily and Tony Cox in London, and Angel Hierra, a double killer from Las Vegas arrives to further confuse the situation – he’s on a very clear mission and he doesn’t intend to let anyone get in his way. The stakes are high throughout Little Bones, both personally and professionally, and the conclusion, for Cathy, is explosive.
© Sam Blake
Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.
Little Bones is the first in the Cat Connolly Dublin based detective thriller trilogy. When a baby’s bones are discovered in the hem of a wedding dress, Detective Garda Cathy Connolly is face with a challenge that is personal as well as professional – a challenge that has explosive consequences.
Follow Sam Blake on Twitter @writersamblake or Vanessa @inkwellhq – be warned, they get tetchy with each other!