Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Double, Double Toil and Trouble"

This classic quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth is indicative of my topic today..."(Lead)Read on, MacDuff!"

Yesterday during a chat on (come join us anytime, Nanoers or not!) I was complaining about how the "in between" scenes give me major stress. I know the major plot points of my story, where the story makes right turns in the action and character development, but how they get from point A to point B is sometimes a struggle.

And someone reminded me that when you have a scene that feels stagnant, like the action isn't moving the plot forward, ratchet up the tension. Add something to story to bring another aspect of your story to life. And it reminded me of a writing book I'd purchased last year, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass.

I bought the workbook instead of the book so I could write in it, and use the exercises that he uses in his workshops. It's been so instructional to me, helping me break down the different aspects of my novels, and polishing up each individual part.

I wanted to share some of the things I'd gleaned from it, in terms of tension. He broke "tension" down into three problem areas to identify in your writing and fix.

First, make sure that any scene that happens in a kitchen, someone taking a shower, drinking and thinking, or driving a car from one place to another, is actually necessary. Especially look at the first 50 pages. If you have such a scene, CUT IT.  And if you can't cut it, add tension to it...make the scene about the underlying tensions between two characters, add critical information to the scene that the reader needs to make them want to keep reading.

Second, backstory. Telling us how your character was born, and basically sitting them down on the therapist's couch and letting them spew their issues isn't compelling reading. So Mr. Maass's suggestion is to find somewhere in the first 50 pages, any scene that establishes setting, sets up the situation, or is otherwise backstory. Then cut and paste it into chapter 15, or the chapter past the midpoint of the story. Does it belong here? If not, does it belong in your story at all? Could you find another place for it, also after the midpoint of the story?  These scenes should remain in the novel only if it answers some long standing question, something that illuminates some character that can't be answered any other way.

There's one more element to adding tension to your story, but it's a doozy, so I'll leave that for next week. Think about it, about your story. Where can you add tension? Where are you diluting tension by having your characters do unnecessary things? Rehash things the reader already knows? Telling us how cool your world is, when all the reader cares about is what happens next?

Think hard, 'cause the next part is a killer.


  1. Oh, thank you for sharing. I have my MC drive home & have a conversation with her younger sister(in the car) in my first chapter and I've been wondering if I need to change it. I've heard good things about that book - so thanks for the reminder.

  2. My first few projects are full of stuff like that but I'm getting better... one small step at a time...

  3. Wow, I've been eyeballing Maass's book for quite a loooong time now! I especially want Fiction under Fire, too! *Sigh* I can't wait to analyze my WiP in such a way.

    Thanks for reminding me!!! <3



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