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Jan
25
2015

Pacing and Tension: A Feedback Loop -- by Suzie Quint

One bit of wisdom that comes with experience is that in tense scenes you want the pacing to pop. The tricks of the trade for fast tension? Short sentences, short paragraphs, everything short. Boom. Boom. Boom. Pop. Pop. Pop.

In general, I believe that. And yet . . .  I've read scenes where the author has dragged the tension out for pages and pages. Almost to the point where it's been painful for me as reader. Nothing fast about that.

A while back, I ran across a perfect example of this in the Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey.

If you're not familiar with the story, it's a dystopian novel that takes place in a poisoned world. Everyone lives in silos waiting for the day they can reseed the earth. Except only a few select people know this larger history. Most think that this is the world God made for them. It's not a particularly original plot, but as they say, it's all in the execution. And the execution is brilliant.

The point I particularly want to make here comes at the 76% mark. I won't go into extensive detail because I can make my point without it, so in a nutshell, the heroine is under six stories of water in a jury-rigged diving suit. At this point I'm familiar enough with the author's style to know that something bad, something life threatening, will happen. Before it even does, I can feel the tension building inside me. The character isn't particularly claustrophobic, and normally neither am I, but while I'm reading it, I feel claustrophobic with all that water on top of me and because I KNOW it's coming. I know something is (most likely) going to happen to her oxygen supply.

I'm tense. I want to skip ahead to release the tension (I don't but I really, really want to.) This goes on for a number of pages,  and for each of those pages my tension rises until finally it's nearly painful. Keep in mind, nothing bad has yet happened, but I'm ready for it. And then, of course, it happens. 

Suddenly, there's no new air coming through her air hose. All she's got is what's in her suit. It's at this point she runs into problems with her mission. She should be getting the hell of there, but I know this character. She's going to take that extra sixty seconds or whatever to fix the problem because she really doesn't want to have to do this again, so it becomes a race against time. 

Look at all those elements. A dangerous situation that transmits tension even before anything bad happens, a choice to make between giving herself the best odds of survival or accomplishing her mission and cutting her odds, which leads to an even tighter race against time.

Great stuff. This is a master at work. And it goes on for pages. (Yes, I've said that before, but it's important.) Reading it, I have no sense that he's using any overt tricks to increase the pacing. Looking back, I see that while some, but not all, of his sentences are in fact fairly lengthy, most are direct and to the point. He can afford those longer ones though because MY tension that I bring to the story--that I was manufacturing in anticipation long before the crisis--makes me swallow those words as fast as I can. I, the reader, am ratcheting the pacing up with my internal tension.

Did I say Hugh Howey was a master? I meant genius.

Posted by Suzie Quint 25 Jan 2015 at 01:30
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Responses to this blog

Nainy 25 Jan 2015 at 06:46  
I think you could've still used some quotations to illustrate what you meant.
Amayfair 25 Jan 2015 at 10:34  
I have to agree. this would be a lot clearer with actual examples of the technique.
Rellrod 25 Jan 2015 at 10:47  
I think Susie's point is that it's not a specific way of writing sentences that achieves the result — it's the overall effect of the danger of the situation, what the reader knows about the character, and so on. The plot inherently creates the tension, in other words.

(Or at least that was my reaction on a quick read, and recalling the scene from Wool. )

Rick
__________________
All good tales tell of things that are true. (Constance Hieatt)

Amayfair 25 Jan 2015 at 11:30  
I don't agree. I believe that there is no such thing as a plot in a scene that inherently creates tension, and that all you have to do is make up a tense situation and readers will be on the edge of their seats, because you can chop it off at the knees if the character they're following doesn't feel tense about it. conversely, a situation can seem like it's being blown out of proportion if the character is reacting with fear, but the overall tone of the scene doesn't reflect that.

I've never read Wool, so I really have no connection to the scene described. I'm being told that it was tense, and I do not doubt that it was. but a great deal of that has no impact on me because i'm being told at a remove, without the experience of reading it for myself. a fair use quote or two would have helped.
Kazahari 25 Jan 2015 at 11:54  
Quotes would've been out of context, and therefore lacking weight or pressure behind them by definition. Tension is all about build-up; a few lines probably won't make you feel that.

Personally, I haven't read Wool either...but I don't need to. I have sufficient information to let me visualize the scene, put myself in the character's shoes. Unless the wording or sentence structure undermines this, it's enough to feel the pressure simmering in the scenario itself.

The mind can fill in the gaps where the words are missing; no more is required. Maybe it doesn't work for everyone, and it may not be as intense without reading it...but reader expectation is a powerful tool.
Susieq 25 Jan 2015 at 13:01  
Sorry I couldn't include any quotes but the quotes would have had to be several pages long because the tension created was in the cumulative effect of the writing.
Darkocean 25 Jan 2015 at 13:06  
I think it depends on what is happening with the character, and the writing style. But yes I find during action scenes the sentences become shorter, usually.
Card 25 Jan 2015 at 13:43  
Interesting post, Suzie. I have definitely read those stories where the build up is painful. Susan Kaye Quinn's Open Minds series comes to mind. I never took the time to analyze why, but it's somewhere in her series that the build up really really got to me. I knew what kind of thing was coming, though I didn't quite know what, and it got to me.

But it was also cathartic because the heroine found a kind of victory at the end.

I also recall reading some of Orson Scott Card's stories - a few of the books in the Ender series, the first in his Empire series, and Invasive Procedures, all of which were incredibly painful to read at times. And in OSC's case, I don't think it was even suspense, so much as the writing style itself. He even mentions this in the re-released edition of Ender's Game, in its Introduction. I gotta go pull out my copy here...

Let's see, he says (and this is quite a mouthful), "The attacks on the novel [Ender's Game] - and on me - were astonishing. Some of it I expected - I have a master's degree in literature, and in writing Ender's Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make "fine" writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism - but if you don't care to play that game, that's fine with me. I designed Ender's game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn't have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my little novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for impenetrability."

He saying quite a lot in that, some of which people may take issue with, but the point of my referencing it is that I think his "simplest, purest form" is part of what makes some of his stories painful to read. They are nonetheless, some of them, amazing stories, but I think the pain is in them being presented in such a raw way that there is no layering of gauze to hide the open wound, so to speak. You get to see and feel the pain and you can't hide from it.

In skimming the introduction, I realize he also said something that - at the time meant nothing to me when I first read it years ago - but rings true when I see it now. "I learned to separate the story from the writing, probably the most important thing that any storyteller has to learn - that there are a thousand right ways to tell a story, and ten million wrong ones, and you're a lot more likely to find one of the latter than the former your first time through the tale."
Marisaw 27 Jan 2015 at 15:21  
It surprised me when you said, "The tricks of the trade for fast tension? Short sentences, short paragraphs, everything short." When I did a writing course, one of the very first things I was taught was the complete opposite - and it made a lot of sense.

Yes you can create a fast-moving scene by keeping things short, but not a tense scene - the reader doesn't have time to feel tension if the scene is over in seconds. It's not like in a movie where the viewer can see what's happening and the adrenalin kicks in straight away - in a novel, if the scene is fast, you need to build the picture and immerse the reader in the pain/fear/suspense before they can feel the tension.
Jbutcher 28 Jan 2015 at 07:17  
I agree that short sentences rise the level of tension, however, if I read a complete scene like that, I go nuts. Too many short sentences make the opposite effect on me.

One element of building tension wasn't mentioned: delaying the final blow. I read Whool some time ago, and I cannot recall how long the sentences were, but I do remember that this particular scene was indeed tense. The whole time I expected something to happen (the lack of air supply could be easily guessed), but the scene went on for a while before the trouble came. This kind of delaying could raise the tension if not overused.
Kam 29 Jan 2015 at 01:10  
I'd just like to add that Hugh has been criticised quite a lot for this exact style - just something to think about when you receive critiques, because the books are massively popular.
Margotg 29 Jan 2015 at 10:44  
I think of it as the art of the slow tease. Some writers seem to think it's bullets firing that creates tension. To me, it's the unknown of the creak of a stair, the footfall in the hall, the turn of the knob, the expelled breath of someone behind the door. Many new writers tend to rush to the action and forget about the buildup. I've found it's increasing the tension in the buildup that keeps readers turning pages.
Marzipan77 29 Jan 2015 at 17:53  
It sounds as if Hugh is good creating tension in the reader. I believe writers have many methods of doing this, regardless of the oft-quoted "short sentences" advice. Short sentences contribute best in dialogue, perhaps, rather than in descriptive paragraphs.

However, this sentence in the blog gave me another thought:


"At this point I'm familiar enough with the author's style to know that something bad, something life threatening, will happen. Before it even does, I can feel the tension building inside me."


Is it only because the reader is familiar with the writer's style that she feels tension? Would a new reader not feel any tension here at all? Card's 'Ender's Game' was the first novel of his that I read and there was gut-churning tension from nearly the first word. I did not need to be familiar with his style to be on the edge of my seat. Did each of his successive works strike me that same way? No.

Now, I haven't read 'Wool,' or anything else by this author, but if his plot devices are so similar that the reader knows to expect 'something bad,' how long will it be before his books are considered predictable?
Dangit 29 Jan 2015 at 18:25  
Quote by: Marzipan77
Card's 'Ender's Game' was the first novel of his that I read and there was gut-churning tension from nearly the first word. I did not need to be familiar with his style to be on the edge of my seat. Did each of his successive works strike me that same way? No.

Let the church say, amen.

I'm enjoying this. It seems there are a lot of ways to build and sustain tension, and readers are very different people. Perhaps blending several methods would be good?

__________________
To sleep, perchance to awake.

Rellrod 31 Jan 2015 at 11:53  
I'd say so. I like both Suzie's point about short sentences, and Marisa's point about the gradual build-up, which will probably employ longer sentences.

Yes you can create a fast-moving scene by keeping things short, but not a tense scene - the reader doesn't have time to feel tension if the scene is over in seconds. It's not like in a movie where the viewer can see what's happening and the adrenalin kicks in straight away - in a novel, if the scene is fast, you need to build the picture and immerse the reader in the pain/fear/suspense before they can feel the tension.

For example, I was rightly criticized for an action scene in which the action (an animal attack) was over very quickly. The swiftness of the action (and I think I was using short sentences) corresponded to the suddenness of the attack — but because the scene was over so quickly, there was no time for the reader to appreciate the danger or the characters' reactions. In the rewrite, I'll be working on how to draw that out appropriately in just some of the ways described above.

Rick

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