Do you struggle to make your writing soar? Does your “dramatic” scene lay there like a dead haddock, refusing to move the action forward? Do your characters blather on about some sort of danger or action that might take place in the future, even while the characters themselves (and probably the reader) glance at their watch and start wondering what’s on television?
Don’t sweat it. It happens. A lack of tension in your creative writing can come from any number of sources — poor planning, unclear goals, a muddled story arc. Never fear. There’s a whole mess of ways to resolve that problem. A dramatic scene is not as difficult to write as you might think.
The Basic Building Block of Tension
At the most basic level, characters should enter a scene with a goal in mind and then meet with some sort of obstacle that prevents them from reaching that goal. If you take a look at your scene and can’t find any goal to speak of, then congratulations! You’ve just found a prime candidate for the chopping block.
Above all, a good scene needs purpose. Figure out why the scene is there. The easiest way to figure out the purpose of a dramatic scene is to ask yourself what the main character wants. If you can’t immediately find that, well, there’s your problem. If your scene is about two characters showing up for a nice brunch, with the scene culminating in the delivery of a sensible bill for the meal, you may want to reconsider your priorities and ask yourself if that scene really needs to be there.
It might look tough on the surface, but once you get your hands dirty, it’s really not. A few minor tweaks can turn a dull scene into a dramatic scene pretty easily, once you actually know what you’re looking for.
Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?
Dramatic irony is what happens when the audience knows something the characters don’t. I like to call this the “girl running upstairs in a horror movie” effect. The audience knows you never run upstairs when the killer’s after you — but the character most often doesn’t. So we see her plight, and we react with either empathy, scorn, or laughter — but the important thing is, we react.
Dramatic irony can take any one of a million forms. But at the basic level, if you set up some perils for the characters to run into later in the narrative, your readers will see trouble coming and, if you’ve done your job well, get engaged. That’s dramatic irony at work.
Raise the Stakes
Making things bigger / badder / more dangerous is a great way to ramp up the tension. Your characters thought they were fighting a ten-foot bug? Turns out they’re fighting a hundred-foot bug. The love interest gets kidnapped. The vial full of deadly contagion falls into the hands of the bad guys. Whatever. Raising the stakes can aid with character development — friendships get challenged, alliances break down, priorities come into conflict. The higher the stakes, the greater the dramatic scene. Just make sure you can pay off those stakes at the end, lest you end up with a story that just goes on forever. (Insert picture of Robert Jordan novel with a sarcastic caption here, am I right guys? High five!)
Grab On and Twist Till It Hurts
Nothing gets a reader’s blood up like a good twist. The character they thought was the villain actually turns out to be the hero. The loyal friend betrays the protagonist’s trust. A dramatic monologue ends in the middle with the speaker getting killed (Joss Whedon loves this one). This is where introducing some dramatic irony can really pay off. A twist can’t just come out of nowhere — the reader has to have the proper context to see it coming and have it make sense. Even though it seems counterintuitive, your twists will work best if the reader can sense them coming. Not that they should be obvious from the start — but the reader should suspect that something is not right, even before the dramatic scene where you reveal all.
Shorter sentences read faster. The action moves faster. The reader starts turning pages. Quickly. Lots of action in a short space. It works.
The Ticking Clock
A leisurely conversation over a good meal might make a nice “breather” scene in between plot action, but it doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse. If you want to get your reader turning pages eagerly, put a deadline on things. It doesn’t have to be a red LED countdown on a literal time bomb — just make sure your characters are always short on time somehow.
The Raymond Chandler Solution
Known as “Chandler’s Law” on TVTropes, this solution served the pulp author well: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Introduce some danger or peril. It doesn’t even have to be violent. Just get things moving.
Sometimes, the best way to add tension to a scene is to end it just when things are getting good, and cut to the next scene. If you can pull it off, this sort of thing will drive your readers nuts. They’ll frantically keep reading in hopes of getting back to the scene and finding out what happens. Then, of course, you make the “next scene” every bit as tense, and then cliffhanger that scene, and… well, you get the picture.
Better yet, use your mad dramatic irony skills and route the characters into even greater peril — peril your audience knows is there. Soon your readers will be staying up all night, missing work, and cursing your name.
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