Tension is one of the most important, and most difficult, things to get right in your story. This is particularly true in Act 2, where the main aim is to slowly build tension towards the grand finale of Act 3. There’s obviously the increasing clashes of conflict and rising threat level as provided by the plot, but that doesn’t necessarily create the right atmosphere. You want the reader bouncing up and down in their seat, forgetting to breathe (temporarily – corpses tend not to endorse books) and utterly unable to come to bed until they’ve ‘just finished this next chapter’. It’s that grip of tension which keeps the pages turning and the audience invested. So, how’s it done?
This is probably the area you should spend most of your time concentrating on during Draft 2/3, once you’ve sorted the spelling errors and plot holes. Draft 1 covers the action, when you’re writing in a passion of ideas and “what happens next”s. Some tension can totally be written at the Draft 1 stage but it’ll get upped and improved when you come back to it. This is the key – ‘write hot, revise cold’, as James Scott Bell says.
Now, obviously you need something in the scene to be tense about. There’s got to be enough threat and enough at stake that the reader can see how horribly it could go wrong. Once you’ve got that sorted, you can add the atmosphere.
The way to do it is simple – slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat as if you’re watching a movie scene in slow motion. Then, as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them. ~ Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
This can seem counter-intuitive, especially in a high-action scene. Pacing is of course key, but so is atmosphere. You have to make a judgement call on how to achieve both in the best way. High-action tension is very different to slow-build tension, though, which is what I’m primarily talking about here. This is the long, slow walk to the guillotine where the heroine has plenty of time to think, panic, despair, etc whilst listening to the crowd jeer and dodging the rotten vegetables they throw. You get the idea.
There are a couple of key things the readers need in order for the tension to impact them. The first is the knowledge of what’s at stake, and the penalty if the protagonist should fail. They must have that fear in their minds right from the start, otherwise there’s no need for them to worry on the character’s behalf and the tension is lost. The second is an emotional buy-in – they have to care that the protagonist succeeds, even if they don’t care about the character herself. Mind you, if they don’t care by Act 2 you’ve got bigger problems, I’m afraid.
So, having written Draft 1 and fixed up the plot holes, I’m now going to go back and stretch things out a little. Not everywhere – that’d lead to a shapeless garment with shapeless pacing – but in the key scenes where a slow build of tension is important. I’ve written hot – time to revise cold.