Saturday, January 21, 2012

Turning Up the Tension

Last person to identify
this movie still is a rotten egg.
The annual Florida SCBWI conference in Miami has to be one of the best kid lit conferences in the country: witness the many writers who whizzed down last weekend from Canada and New York to attend. I spent an intense day Friday in a novel workshop with agent Marietta Zacker and Y/A author Dorian Cirrone; we covered a lot of ground -- from writing tag lines to penning the novel's climactic scene, so I'll share just a piece of what we talked about when it comes to ratcheting up tension in your novel and keeping it high.

This is one of Dorian Cirrone's tips; she had ten in all. Keep an eye out for Dorian as she makes the round of national conferences. She's a pleasure to spend a day with. Her book Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You is available from Harper Teen.

1. Ramp up your dialogue

There are lots of ways to infuse dialogue scenes with tension to get hearts pounding. But there are softer kinds of tension, too -- your reader might feel, well, uneasy. Or uncomfortable. Dorian suggests confrontation, evasion, repetition, interruption, changing direction, indirect answers, answering a question with a question, and exchange of power. This last is a really cool device. It happens when Speaker A starts on top in a dialogue exchange, and ends on the bottom, with Speaker B's heel firmly on throat. Here's an example Lori Devoti uses in her ebook, Dialogue: More Than Just Talk

“James, can you tell me the eight stages of the moon and which one we will see tonight?"
James leaned back in his chair and tapped his pencil against his desktop.
“James? The stages?”
The teen’s pencil stilled. His gaze caught the teacher’s.“Will you be out tonight, Mr. Wilson?” 

I don't know about you, but I really want to know what Mr. Wilson is doing catting around in the middle of the night. I hope he's moonlighting as a cross-dressing hooker. Or robbing graves. Or extracting souls from the mouths of sleeping children. Or hunting leprechauns.  I for sure would keep reading.

Do you have tips of your own for building tension? Please share, if so. I'll add one or two more of Dorian's, and a few of my own, in future posts.


  1. Glad it was a good conference. I've been to the SCBWI Los Angeles conference and thought it was fantastic too.

    I also took Donald Maass's class on creating micro-tension and it was fascinating to see him take a volunteer's page of sort of bland writing and really amp it up by raising questions within the passage or by inserting conflict where there hadn't been any before. Great lesson.

  2. Ooh nice.

    Great tips on making things uncomfortable.

  3. Your blog is so fun!!!! I found you over at Tiptoe Kisses and had to stop in!

    LOVE THE TIP! I really love hearing what people take away from conferences. They end up feeling so inspired. When I go to an author signing I leave inspired, I can't imagine how I'd feel leaving one of the many wonderful seminars people attend!

  4. I love dialogue! It's my favourite thing to write, so I am happy to utilise it to ramp up tension :-) Yesterday, I used the evasion/changing direction technique when one character asked another one a question. I didn't explain it at all, but readers are intelligent so I'm sure they'll pick up on it!

  5. Love to hear tips from other writers. Glad you had a great conference.

  6. I was at the same conference! It was awesome, and I loved Marietta Zacker. Learned a lot and made great contacts.

  7. Hi Vivi, if you go to SCBWi Orlando in June, let's have coffee!

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