Thursday, 28 March 2013

Building Tension



Hey all,

I’ve been typing away at Dreamstate and emailing book blogs over the past few days, nothing super exciting, but hey, it’s a living (sort of). My last post was a bit of a meandering mass of words that started with me saying that I was spending too much of my time not working on my books, and ended with me wanting to strike a balance between PR and creative time. I believe I also threw in a video that briefly touched on the same topic—it was a bit all over the place, which today I hope to avoid. The intent, and let’s see where it goes, of today’s post is to get a bit more technical. I shall be running through a few different ways (that I use) to play with tension and action sequences in writing.

First of all, the idea for this post came to me earlier this week. I knew that there was a big(ish) action sequence coming up when Daniel first encounters the new Brother. This scene, of course, has to up the excitement from the last book—bring in some new tricks and get rid of the old ones. The problem that I was coming up against, though, was that I didn’t really know how to approach the scene.

In my mostly amateur mind, the two big ways to come at an action sequence are either through instant shock and awe, or by a slow buildup of tension that ends at a release. I’m sure there are variances of each technique, and blends of the two, but for length and simplicities sake, let’s pretend that these are the two big ones.

The shock value is best illustrated in a scene where the world and characters are perfectly calm, and the reader has no idea that all hell is about to break out half a page away. It’s a surprise attack, it’s (Harry Potter spoiler) the death of Hedwig, it’s the murderer in a clown mask leaping out at you and shouting ‘Boo!’ It creates a ‘Whoa!’ moment from the reader, and can be very effective in certain situations. Instantly throwing an action scene into the mix can push along the story and create very sturdy hinge points where the plot changes direction. The real downside to this style of writing is that if it’s overused, the scenes start to feel really choppy. It becomes an action movie that has no downtime between the shoot ‘em up scenes, mixed with a funky art film. The style also misses out on the grand, epic feel of the slow buildup. You lose that feeling of knowing that something terrible is coming, when your hairs stand on end and you have to curl up your knees in anticipation in order to keep reading.

In regards to Dreamstate II, I had originally thought that a big, power infused intro of the second Brother would be the best way to bring the character into the series. I even wrote it out as so just the other day, but after I’d finished it, and read through the chapter—I had to change it. I felt like I was cheating something that was going to be so integral to the story; also, I needed the Brother to be far more terrifying. There was something too ‘action movie baddie,’ about having him come in quick, there was no time to be afraid, and it wasn’t working. I will continue going over the way that I remedied this situation in the next couple paragraphs.

The second downfall of the quick fire shocking method of action sequences feeds directly into the most obvious strength of a slow buildup—anticipation. Like I mentioned just above, there’s something amazing about that feeling of knowing doom is heading the way of the main character. I believe that a lot of the time, this is what keeps the reader reading the book. There needs to be that draw, that pull to find out what happens. The epic buildup is what you find in The Shining, where the slow madness culminates in crazy action filled murder sprees. This comes from you, or I, as the author dropping small hints as to what is coming. The reader cannot know everything, because there’s something far more scary about only knowing half of what’s going on—you know it’s bad, but you’re not sure why; this creates the tension, or more realistically, this is what allows the reader to create their own tension.

There was one particular scene in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass that has stuck with me that uses this technique very, very well. It’s the first time you glimpse the regent angel of the Authority (if you’ve never read the book this might make no sense, so go out and read the series). You only see the angel for a moment, but the buildup to his arrival lasts a page or two, and everyone who knows about him (other angels) are terrified. The main characters don’t understand until they seem him come out of the sky like the hand of God (literally). They get away, but the buildup to his arrival is intense, and you know he’s lurking out there the rest of the time. It’s designed to put the reader on edge, and it does it well.

In Dreamstate II, I needed to make the Brother like the regent angel. Not to copy the writing, but to create that sense of foreboding—you know the Brother is out there for the rest of the book, and he needs to put Daniel and the reader on edge. This sort of tension can feed into every other sequence in the book, and even meld with the more instant shock value action scenes. It’s a lot more work, but the payoff can last the length of the entire novel.

-Trevor

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