Tracking Tension

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Over the past few days, as well as lots of family and more food than is good for me, I have had some much valued R+R. This has meant I’ve finally sat down and organised my prep notes for Animus, and finished them. I now have characters with sketched arcs and desires, a chapter-by-chapter plot outline, filed research notes and a tension graph.

This last is something I realised was really useful near the end of writing Spiritus, by which time it was too late for that book. The reason it’s so useful is because, once I’m mid flow, I tend to lose track of the ups and downs of story stress levels. That’s a big problem – you need to keep the tension cycle going at the right timing and level in order to both maintain the audience’s interest and give them some breathing space. It also helps a lot with getting your pacing right when outlining the chapters in the first place.

I decided to do mine on an excel spreadsheet, using a rating of 1-5. 1 is base, with no real tension, and 5 is peak tension which should only be used once or twice during the story so as not to devalue it. I broke the story outline down into individual events (some as small as a conversation) and assigned a tension value to each. These will probably change as I’m writing, but having that blueprint to aim for is very handy.

In a perfect world, a tension cycle should have the following: high tension at the start to draw the audience in, then a gentle rise and fall towards the key change point (about a third or half way through – think Elrond’s Council in Fellowship of the Ring), then another slightly less gentle rise and fall building towards the peak tension at the end, with an optional cool down at the very end.

That’s an example, of course. There are several different and equally valid patterns, but in every case the pacing is important. You need to give your readers something to grip them and a period of rest. Too much grip and they become exhausted; too much rest and they get bored.

Anyway, the tension graph for Animus came out like this, which pleased me:

Animus tension graph

It’s not the most beautiful graphic in the world, but it is a clear visual blueprint to follow and, in the original spreadsheet, it has the chapter points against each bit so I know what relates to when.

This is far and away the most organised I have ever been in approaching a writing project. Let’s see if the extra effort pays off.

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