Sunday, April 1, 2012

How to inject tension into every scene you write

This question from Carson is a two-part question. I've answered the first and will answer the second in a later post.
Carson says:
Plot Meister Maegan, can you help? I have a murder mystery where my protag Ben is just walking from scene to scene doing the talking head thing. I NEED ACTION. NOW! I have two people who want him out of town--if not dead. I need to turn Ben upside down and shake him until his eyes bulge, problem is, everything I end up writing is contrived rather than organic. I won't even send my current work to my sweet writing teacher who NEVER has a negative thing to say about anyone's writing, because even he will fillet me. ;-) I love the dialogue/cerebral scenes. What can I do to up the tension in my scenes?

Hi Carson,
I've read your pages and I think problem here is that Ben faces very little opposition. There is no element of genuine conflict, no feeling that he's in danger. For a thriller to work, there must be tension on every page. Everyone--friends and enemies alike--must throw up roadblocks at every turn. In your story, everyone is too agreeable. Almost everyone is willing to talk. This should be reversed--almost NO ONE should be willing to talk. Ben should be pushing this two-ton boulder up the side of Mt. Everest... and when he reaches the top, he should stumble, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom. His task, whatever it might be at the moment, should be seemingly impossible. Nothing should be easy. If I'm not mistaken, Ben is saddled with his own scarlet letter in this town (and if he isn't, he should be). People should remember his family. They should whisper about him. They should be untrusting and unwilling to help him. Being seen with him should be the kiss of death and helping him should be akin to committing social suicide. People should be avoiding him like a plague.
You say that you have two people on the page that want Ben out of town, if not dead. Now is the time for one (or both) of them to act. What are they waiting for? Here a way to up the tension and place Ben in danger... hope you're ready to do some re-writes!
1) Put a tail on Ben. As he's going about his business, he notices a non-script car following him. On foot, it's a man in a baseball hat and sunglasses. When he tries to double back and catch the guy off guard, he's gone.
2) When he drives by the crime scene--he sees him again but he disappears quickly into the crowd.
3) When he returns to his hotel room, he finds it trashed. Before he can react, he's attacked from behind. There's a struggle. Punches are thrown. Guns are drawn and lost. Ben scrambles and manages to re-gain his and gets a shot off. His attacker is killed and it's found that he's a petty criminal (maybe one of Gayle's old boyfriends). In his pockets there is a snap shot of Ben and a phone number. The phone number is traced to a payphone... an out of service number... a pager. Whatever floats your boat.
4) Ben is left wondering WTF just happened. Did it have to do with the case or his own personal demons he left behind when he fled town as a boy?
 Now you've got the story questions of, who wants Ben dead? Was the guy that was following him the same guy he just killed? Was the guy that tried to kill him the same guy that's been killing little girls? Is the attempt on his life about the case or is it something else--Ben's appearance in town shouldn't just stir up one hornet's nest. It should stir up a hundred, and your audience should be left wondering which hornet is going to sting next with every turn of the page.

I know I only answered part 1 of your question. I'll post my response to the second part as soon as I can. Thanks for the great question, Carson, I hope this helps, and look out for part 2!

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  1. You are awesome Maegan! I cannot count the times you've helped me out--fun to see how you spin your magic on others! Nice job!