Monday, December 26, 2016

Writing tips and how-tos: Keeping the tension in a scene

I edit a lot of manuscripts by first-time writers: biography, memoir, fiction and non-fiction. A common issue that comes up is how to build and keep the tension in a scene. 

Tension is like a flower; it starts small, grows, blossoms, and then, at the right time, comes into its own glory.

We have agapanthus flowers out the front of our house. They start as a green bulb-shaped pod. Over time, the bulb expands and its covering dies off. Eventually, when the pressure from the flower is so great that the dead covering can't hold it any more, the flower bursts out for everyone to see.

Sometimes I've tried to 'help' the flower along, pulling off the dead covering before the flower is ready, but it hasn't helped. That flower needs time to come to its full beauty.

The same is true for tension in a scene. It needs time to grow and come into its own.

I often find that first time writers build half the picture, but lose, or almost bury, the key tension moment right at the last moment.

____________________________


Here's a real-life example of a scene in which the tension was buried:

I lived with a childless couple, Mr and Mrs Jones, in the country during the war, because all the children were shipped away from the city for their own safety. It was a happy place, and I started calling the couple Mother and Pop. They treated me like the son they had never had. It was a happy time and I enjoyed life in Wales.

Meanwhile, Mum and Dad decided to visit me, just to make sure I really was alright, despite my happy, weekly letters. Mr and Mrs Jones invited them to stay in their home, but their generosity had unforeseen consequences.

Just before the visit, Mrs Jones said to me, “Now Jimmy, when your mother comes to stay you mustn’t call me ‘Mother’, you must call me Mrs Jones. Call your mother ‘Mother’ and your father ‘Dad’. Don’t call Mr Jones ‘Pop’.  Do you understand all that, Jimmy?” I expect I replied that I would remember, but of course I didn’t. I let the proverbial cat out of the bag when I got excited, playing with the real cat on the coconut matting on the kitchen floor.

Mother was understandably distressed and took me home the next day, ‘for my own good’ of course.


____________________________


I have used this scene to teach tension with Year 9 students. After reading it with them, I ask them these three questions:

1.         What is the crisis point of this scene?
2.         How much space is allocated to it, in this version?
3.         Draw the scene as a graph, in terms of time and tension.


____________________________


Then I show them this rewritten version of the scene:

I lived with a childless couple, Mr and Mrs Jones, in the country during the war, because all the children were shipped away from the city for their own safety. It was a happy place, and I started calling the couple Mother and Pop. They treated me like the son they had never had. It was a happy time and I enjoyed life in Wales.

Meanwhile, Mum and Dad decided to visit me, just to make sure I really was alright, despite my happy, weekly letters. Mr and Mrs Jones invited them to stay in their home, but their generosity had unforeseen consequences.

Just before the visit, Mrs Jones called me into the kitchen. Her face was serious, and I felt nervous. “Now Jimmy, when your mother comes to stay you mustn’t call me ‘Mother’, you must call me Mrs Jones.” She looked at me intently, so I nodded, as though I understood.  “Call your mother ‘Mother’ and your father ‘Dad’,” she said. “Don’t call Mr Jones ‘Pop’.”

I fiddled with the tablecloth a little. The cat jumped up so I patted it.

“Do you understand all that, Jimmy?” Mrs Jones repeated, taking my hand and holding it in hers. “It’s important.”

I raised my eyes to her face, which still looked worried. “Yes, I understand,” I said. “You’re Mr and Mrs Jones, and my Mum and Dad are my Mum and Dad. I won’t forget.”

A smile flooded her face, and I felt relaxed. “Can I play with the cat now?”
“Of course.”

When Mother and Dad arrived, I hugged them tight and danced around them and called them ‘Mum and Dad’. When Mrs Jones made them tea in the kitchen, I sat by them while they talked together. It wasn’t until the cat came in and started batting her paw against the coconut matting that I got distracted and moved across to play with her in the sunshine.

“That’s a lovely cat,” said my mother, to Mrs Jones. “But I hope Jimmy doesn’t give her any trouble.”

“Oh, he’s usually very kind to her,” said Mrs Jones. She directed her voice to me. “You’re normally a good boy, aren’t you Jimmy.”

I looked at Mrs Jones. “Yes, Mother, I am,” I said. And then I stopped. “I mean, yes, Mrs Jones, I am...”

There was a sudden silence. I could feel my face turn red; I could hardly breathe. Mrs Jones had turned away to the sink; she seemed to be doing something with the dishes, and my own mother had a stretched face and tight lips. “It’s a lovely place here,” she said, but I could tell she didn’t mean it.

“Yes,” said Mrs Jones. “Thank you.” And I could tell she didn’t mean it either.
The next day, my mother took me away from the Jones’ house.


____________________________


“What are the main differences between the two versions of this scene?” I ask the kids, and straight away they can tell me three key ones: length, dialogue and the set-up that indicates the crisis is coming.

All scenes should have tension, and as writers, we must remember to give that tension the space and time it needs to develop and flourish so that when it comes to the point of crisis, we are ready to feel it and be part of it.


____________________________


Questions for us as writers:
1.      Do we set up a scene so that it includes tension?
2.      Do we use dialogue to build the tension?
3.      Do we give the tension the space it needs to grow?

4.      Do we bury the crisis point, or allow it to take up the space it needs?

7 comments:

  1. Great showing of the build up of tension & the pay-off, Cecily. I love your point about not burying the moment - and for some reason it reminded me of the Gospels - which spend so much more time on the crucifixion (and the week before). Thanks for a great post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ha. true, that. Yes, they really do build the tension, as do the OT narratives, eg. the Exodus.

      Delete
    2. Great storytelling for the greatest story of all :)

      Delete
  2. Great practical example, Cecily!! Thank you for sharing ☺

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great practical example, Cecily!! Thank you for sharing ☺

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks Cecily for this wonderful and practical example. When I first began writing, many years ago, I tried my darndest to avoid dialogue. I don't know why, but I feel that I may, for some reason have been afraid of it. I was a shy, timid child, always fearing saying the wrong thing ... or just merely not expressing myself correctly. These days I just write my dialogue as I would be talking if I were a particular character. Of course there are times when some research is required, e.g. different cultures and countries. Cecily, I also love your clever analogy of the blooming of the agapanthus flower. They're beautiful, but sometimes I do get a wee bit impatient, and want things to bloom a bit faster. I guess that applies to so many things in life. We need that tension and build up. Thanks again :-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you, all, and Josephine, for your comments. It's true, you can't hurry those flowers along. (:
    In my dialogue, I try to 'be' or 'hear' each character, and get their voice right.

    ReplyDelete