04 April 2014

D is for Danger

When you're writing a book, you want to keep the tension as high as you possibly can. You don't want the reader to get bored. This doesn't necessarily mean that every moment needs to be a nail biting, on the edge of your seat sort of scene. There doesn't need to be a disaster on every other page. But the threat of a disaster could keep things interesting.

Since my novel is about the relationship between a 15-year-old and a 28-year-old, obviously there's a lot of danger involved. My characters know that their relationship has to be a complete secret, and that if anyone found out it would be disastrous. That thought process is certainly present in the book, but it's not at the forefront. The lives these characters lead allow them to be isolated without much threat of getting caught. Honestly, having my characters get caught has never been an option. It’s the obvious route to take. And I don’t want my book to end up like an episode of Law & Order. It's just not the story that I'm trying to tell. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be the occasional brush with danger.

There are times when the danger is going to be more obvious. When the killer is inside the house. When there's a high speed car chase. Or in my book, when Jordan's mother comes home unexpectedly. Those are the easy times to maintain tension. The reader is already going to be nervous, hoping everything turns out ok for your characters. It's when you have moments between these sort of crucial scenes where tension can be a bit tricky.

I had a good learning experience when I wrote the first draft of my novel. There's one particular scene about halfway through the book where Jordan is sitting at the lunch table at school with his friends, secretly texting with Tom about their upcoming weekend together. Really, I hadn't thought the scene through beyond their conversation, and the fact that I need to occasionally throw in scenes with Jordan's friends to move the subplot. So it was his friend Brian who chimed in, asking who Jordan was texting. At first, I wrote the next line as:

                "Your mother," I said quickly, shoving the phone back into my pocket.

I realized the problem immediately. With the phone in his pocket, the evidence disappears. Where does the scene go from here? Just boring lunchtime banter. I had to think about how this scene was going to work as a whole. Why have the texting conversation while Jordan is at lunch? It could have just as easily happened when he got home from school. The conversation and the setting had to compliment each other. So there had to be some sort of reaction. I rewrote the line as: 

               "Your mother," I said quickly, placing my phone down on the table in front of me. 

It was such a subtle change but it did so much for the scene. Now the phone is out in the open, and Brian is able to grab it and look at it before Jordan can stop him. Instead of being a boring, useless scene, now there's a hint of danger. Jordan has to get his phone back before Brian sees too much and come up with an explanation for what he does see. The whole scenario gets him thinking how he needs to be more careful, how maybe maintaining a secret relationship isn't as easy as he thought. 

Without the danger, this scene would have been really boring. It might have been cut entirely when I wrote the second draft. But because of one tiny little change, there is tension and suspense, even if just for a moment. Danger doesn't always have to be life or death. Sometimes it can be subtle, moving the plot from one scene to another. Even if it's overcome quickly, hopefully the readers will still have that one moment when they're holding their breath.  


  1. My favorite is impeding danger, or a danger that no ones knows for sure what is it. Great post! :)

  2. One of my writing mantras is "Tension all the Time." I repeat it while editing to ensure I'm paying attention, and that's the focus. There has to be something pulling the reader forward. Always.

  3. I never thought about building tension like that. Makes me want to walk through my novel to see where I can make these type of subtle changes. Thanks Sarah. :-)

  4. You turned the phone into Chekhov's Gun!

    I struggle with writing tension. As a result, I usually have a lot of explosions. My friend has started calling me Michael Bay.

    Danger is a good way to phrase it. I hadn't really thought of it with that particular word, but it does add a context that I think I was mentally missing. Thanks!

  5. The subtleties of writing are incredible.- I once thought all one had to do was write something.

  6. Subtlties help keep the reader engaged and not wanting to speed read through a book.

  7. Subtleties sure are important... hoping to learn more about writing from your writing.

    I am your newest follower. if you don't mind could you please return the favour:

    Vikas Khair

    Story Teller
    My Third Eye
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    Thank you very much in advance.

  8. Wow, I learned a lot of things from this post. Subtlety is really important in writing. Will surely keep everything in mind while writing my first book :)

  9. That's whole lot of help and learning packed in one post

  10. Stopping by on the 5th day of the #atozchallenge while looking for fellow writers. Congratulations on your blog. I know you are going to make new blogging friends this month. I'm writing about gardening and related topics and having a wonderful time. If you have time or interest, come and visit.

  11. As much as I hate editing, it's amazing how much a tiny tweak here and there can change an entire scene. Good point, about tension not = disaster on every page. I find the latter actually becomes tedious.