Haute Tension

Haute Tension (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tap, tipetty, tap, tippetty, tap, go my feet along to my favorite songs on the MP3 player. Easy as pie, my head hears the beat and my feet they automatically know what to do. Oh dear fates now I am singing along and I have a voice that the local foxes and tomcat would be proud of.

When it involves music, its instinctive, you hear the beat and something in you knows what to do, connects on that cellular level that we are all instinctively looking for when we write. Music moves us, and we don’t have to do a thing……

Writing is different, it takes a lot of shitty firsts just to get the language right and once we’ve completed that and it’s readable we then look to structure. How long is this bad boy? Do I really need 120,000 words to say this or could I use fifty grand instead?

Where do I show? Start as close to the end as possible you say okay, “The End”, doesn’t seem that effective, begging your pardon. Use a hook for every paragraph? Are you fecking kidding me?

Okay, now I am exhausted reading it, so that doesn’t work.

This is my nemesis now, the rise and fall. I am not writing a thriller. So having my characters fall from one calamity to the next every paragraph doesn’t quite suit, I want drama and tension to come through, but I don’t want to manufacture nasty stuff to happen just because everyone tells you that you must have your character in deep doo-doo all the time. I am not sure it’s right.

Tension,is what I am trying to create and then resolution and then further tension, my novel should rise and fall like the ocean, sweeping the reader along with it. Disaster, then climax then build again. I want it believable and musical. I want my readers emotions to travel with them on the journey and whilst some of this is achieved by likeability and hateability of the central characters. A lot of this will happen via the structure and flow.

My perfect reader will be on a journey with my characters towards realisation. Not all my characters make it. In fact many that start the journey will fall and their friends and family will be irrevocably altered by their loss. Some for good and some for ill.

It’s creating that wave-like structure that I am finding the most challenging (along with everything else.) I seem to either have too much happening or too little, it’s such a fine balance.

I’d welcome suggestions from others who’ve struggled with the topic of pacing?

Are there any great craft books, you know of that deal essentially with this topic rather than anything else?


  1. Unfortunately, I do not really know any specific books that deal with this topic, but I do know that the way you describe it in this post essentially answers the questions! You do know how to build the tension, just let it come to you and type -:)!

  2. There is a spelling error in your title: rhythm. I suggest editing out this line of the comment once you have fixed it to avoid giving the wrong impression to potential publishers.

    I obtained my technical knowledge of tension and scene mechanics from Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham.

  3. I use music to help me pace my writing–I have several different Pandora stations, and I’ll play the station that fits what I am trying to write. Having the rhythm of the music helps me to pace my word flow. (Limp Bizkit for fight scenes, Tegan & Sarah for romantic moments, etc.)

    In scenes, I follow the advice that William Goldman gave to screenwriters–“Enter late, leave early.” I try to structure my scenes so that the reader sees just the “good parts” with a minimum of set up. If a significant conversation takes place at dinner, for example, I don’t need to write about the characters making reservations and waiting for a table, I can just pick up with them finishing their entrees and getting down to business. If it’s clear what the characters are going to decide, or that they are not going to come to an agreement, I don’t need to show the end of the conversation, either–just enough to let the reader know what is happening.

    My overall structure takes a lot from poetry, in particular the way that poetic line breaks are structured to “force” the reader into the next line. I make an effort to end both paragraphs and chapters with minor (sometimes major) cliffhangers, to keep the reader’s interest going to the next part to see what happens. I keep my chapters fairly short (7 pages on average, or about 3,000 words) and also my paragraphs short–big blocks of text aren’t inviting.

    In terms of story, I tend to overwhelm my characters and the reader with action–my characters are always playing catch-up, under the gun. Raymond Chandler is reputed to have said, “When you’re stuck for a scene, just have a man kick open the door with a gun in his hand.” I do a lot of that–if more than a chapter has gone by without some kind of action, I’ll throw something in.

    One last point–“action” doesn’t have to mean “life and death”. It can mean a hunt for clue, or even just trying to cross town to get to a party on time. The idea is to give the reader a situation where it is important that something happen a particular way, and then toss a bunch of obstacles in the way.

    Too much action, though, can be as bad as too little–the reader needs time to relax and slow down in between scenes, otherwise you get numb. That’s something that you just have to learn by trial and error–I can’t give you a “formula” for it. In general, I’d say that about a third of my text involves some kind of threat to the characters, about a third preparing for or reacting to threats, and about a third daily life. That’s just a rough estimate, though, and it’s word count, not time passing by–a two minute fight scene can eat up more words than a day at the office.

    My thoughts–hope that helps.

  4. One thing that helps a lot with rhythm and pace is dialogue. I find having my characters simply talk a lot throughout the story helps the story move along at a much faster pace, plus it helps me get through it without needless exposition or backstory. Also, try reading your story out loud. If you find there’s a certain cadence you’re liking when you’re reading your work out loud, then you’re nailing pace and rhythm.

    • Reading your MS aloud was going to be my suggestion. It helps me TONS to actually HEAR the words. Not only does it make any errors easier to spot, but it shines a spotlight on any issues you’re having with flow! Then, having heard the words with your ears, it makes it SO much easier to come up with an easy fix!

      As for the overall flow of an entire MS, the trick I found that works best for me is to have a physical printed copy and as I read through, if I find myself getting distracted (happens a lot), I stick a sticky not on the page to tell me that I need to throw something in right there to pull myself back into the story! More often than not all it takes is some really good sensory input. Sights, tastes, smells, textures, sounds… Easy way to pull a reader back in without stuffing action down their throat on every single page!

  5. Love this: “I don’t want to manufacture nasty stuff to happen just because everyone tells you that you must have your character in deep doo-doo all the time. I am not sure it’s right.” That’s where I’m at. As for craft books, of the best is a screenwriting tips book, but it’s great for story in general: SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. There’s also WRITING FICTION by Janet Burroway (and others). Janet gets at pacing within her book. I also recommend THE PLOT WHISPERER by Matha Alderson. I recommend all three HIGHLY.

  6. My aunt told me this, and I’ll never forget it. Only tell the reader what he needs to know–at any given time. Let back-story come out naturally, in other words. Only give it when it’s organic.

    Sol Stein “On Writing”–one of the best DIY books out there. I don’t remember the specifics of pacing mentioned herein, I just know I benefited from this book (and Noah Lukeman’s books) more than any other.

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