Dropping Tension

Today I’ve asked a long-time writer friend, Alice Sharpe, to share a bit about a common failing in many manuscripts.

First, let me mention that Alice and I were part of the same writer’s group for about fifteen years. She was writing articles then (a great way to start) and I was stumbling around with my own false starts to novels and whatnot. She eventually moved away and then so did I. But we tried to stay in touch, though often months (and even a couple of years) went by without much contact.

Then, a few weeks ago Alice called. We talked about writing—as expected—and she said something that I wanted you to hear. The result is today’s blog entry which I asked Alice to write.

Alice doesn’t write CBA fiction, but is hugely successful as a novelist for Harlequin. Take a look at her books on Amazon:


Sometime ago, Nick and I were catching up over the telephone and we started talking about those inevitable moments in a book when a writer is stalled. Dead in the water. Kaput. I’ve found that often this happens at the end of a scene. There you are, going along great, things are happening and suddenly yikes, what do I do now?

This is not to be confused with writer’s block. In my experience, writer’s block is a cataclysmic event that happens inside a writer due to external forces. An event that causes an emotional upheaval —things like a bad illness, an accident, and life’s worries that have nothing to do with writing.

Nope, this problem is almost always defined by these two words: dropped tension. That’s it. You dropped it. You had the ball and then it dribbled way out of bounds right after that glorious basket you sank.

One time, many books ago, one of my heroines ran out to the barn in a fit of pique The hero found her and they cleared the air, they talked, they mended fences. As their creator and their friend, I was very proud of the fact they were acting all grown up and civil.

That scene killed that book for about a week. And then I went back and saw that I’d given myself nowhere to go, no bridge that needed to be crossed to lead to the next scene. I hadn’t raised the stakes for my characters (or my readers); I’d just made everything interesting about my story go away.

By satisfying my desire to smooth ruffled feathers, I had dropped the tension in my story. And in that moment when I finally understood what I’d done, I was able to extrapolate it into the bigger picture. We all know we need a dynamic hook for the end of a chapter to coax the reader into reading one more page, but I think that we sometimes forget we need that same discipline after every major scene.

By the way…I’m not talking about inserting phony, manipulative dialogue and massive misunderstandings or unrelated adventures in order to keep things going. The tension has to be organic, a byproduct of the story and the characters, genuine and true, a step on a ladder that leads somewhere important. You’ll know it’s there when you suddenly see the next step on the ladder, and maybe even the glimmer of the next one and the one after that.

If you’re in the middle of a project and it feels flat to you (characters are just mulling about, going nowhere) or you’ve let your book slip away from you entirely, ask yourself when it happened. Chances are, the problem exists somewhere within the last scene you wrote.

So how do you fix a case of dropped tension? Here’s how:

1. Make a copy of your book and tack a “2” after the title.

2. Using this new copy, go back to the point in your book when things waned and reread it with a critical eye. If you continued writing past this point, then be willing to change everything that comes after it and a good deal that came before; after all, as you get a sense of where you allowed the tension to slip away, it’s probable that you’ll need to go back to earlier pages and rework them to support the new direction in your story. (And don’t panic, you still have Title 1. You can always get something back if, in the unlikely event, you really want to).

3. Shake things up. Ask yourself what needs to happen to carry your story forward. Did you satisfy yourself in this scene and neglect to serve the story you’re writing? Every scene must build to the next.

4. This assumes, of course, that you have enough plot for a book. If you’re now seeing there isn’t enough plot, that’s a different matter and takes some additional thought. As a matter of fact, this just happened to me. I’d sold a book based on a synopsis, but my plot as written in the synopsis, turned out to woefully incomplete. Consequently, I was coming up about a hundred pages short of my contracted length. This was a new problem for me and one that left me cringing. A friend wisely suggested I look at the villain in my story instead of the protagonists. What was he/she up to? I did this, and realized immediately where I’d started losing that character’s presence (dropping the tension), and I created a Title 2 of the story and began rewriting. Result: a new piece of plot landed in my lap and the story regained its momentum.

Some books may not have villains per se. But all successful books have obstacles the characters must surmount to reach the conclusion. The death of a loved one, a loss of innocence, a huge storm. The list is endless. Take a creative approach to these obstacles and ask yourself: what other havoc is this situation (or person) creating?

I currently write romantic suspense heavy on the mystery, and though I’ve written a fair number of books, I still occasionally find myself in this situation. As a result, by the time I finish a book there may be as many as 12 progressive copies—but that’s the thing about writing. Unlike so many tools used in construction projects, words are absolutely free, you can use as many as you like as long as in the final telling, each one of them matters.

Just remember: striving to keep your own life free of stress and tension is a healthy, happy way to live. Doing the same in your book is the kiss of death.

17 replies
  1. Mary Kay says:

    Thanks, Alice. You help us not only see and identify the problem, but propose concrete steps to fix and eventually prevent the problem. All while reducing anxiety! A superb mix, I’d say.

  2. Kathryn Barker says:

    Thanks Alice for an insightful, helpful post. I appreciate the advice to search for “what other havoc the situation or person might be creating.” I’m going to use it, as I have been at a standstill for a week or so in moving forward with my WIP. The possibilities are numerous.
    Also, love the admonition to keep our own lives stress free!

  3. Melissa K. Norris says:

    Thanks for this advice, Alice. I’m in the middle of a revision and one of the things I’m working on is making sure each scene has a hook at the end. I definitley dropped the tension in a few and your tips are great. Using them now.

  4. alice sharpe says:

    BJ–Lovely to hear from you — and so true, putting concepts into actual use is always the trick. If you could read a manual and absorb every morsel then writing would be a piece of cake, right? But it’s never that easy. And yet the way each individual approaches information is what makes things interesting (and I know you know how to do that.)

  5. alice sharpe says:

    Judy — isn’t it amazing that the very thing that makes life so stressful is the thing that makes reading so fun?

  6. alice sharpe says:

    Kathryn — Honey, I have to tell you, since going back in my book and finding out what the bad guy was up to, I have been running myself ragged trying to clean up his messes!!! Wow. If I had known, I might have left him alone… thank you for sounding in. And good luck keeping life stress free. If you get it down pat, be sure to share it.

  7. alice sharpe says:

    Lynn, my hat is off to you. I think writing non fiction is so difficult. In fact, in the group that Nick mentioned that he and I both belonged to, we were asked to answer a bunch of questions in order to create a kind of group manifesto. I studied those questions FOREVER. I had no idea how to respond without the guise of fiction. So, I answered all the questions as a character. I believe I chose a young woman being seduced by an older guy who asked her things like, “So, sweetheart, if you had to choose caveats for aspiring members, what would they be?” I think he may have swirled his mustache…. Pathetic. I think non fiction is way hard. I also think the same tension rules apply as you pointed out. Good writing to us all!

  8. alice sharpe says:

    Melissa — Man, if anything I said helps you figure out the tension in a scene, I am thrilled. It’s always important and yet it’s tricky. How much is too much? It can’t be over the top — in fact, I was guilty of this in the last scene I wrote yesterday. Everyone reacted in a huge way to the hero’s question and I was left wondering what happens next? I thought about it and talked it out with my husband (great sounding board) and realized their reaction had pushed things so far over the top it would have taken a Nazi invasion to live up to the hype. So, I am reluctantly toning things down.

    Everything has to fit — that’s the glory and the rub. Good luck!

  9. Dana Edwards says:

    Alice, great post! You gave some really good ideas. I used to write articles for academic journals and as hard as that was, I understood the formula and was successful at it. I am now trying my hand at an almost all true novel. I’ve had a few folks read it and they are all too nice. What is your advise for finding a writing group? Do they usually meet in person or online? Thanks!

  10. alice sharpe says:

    Dana — I think it’s a great idea to join a critique group. I Googled Christian Writers Critique groups and a bunch came up. Same for Science Fistion and Fantasy and everything else. I belong to a national organization called Romance Writers of America which has several genre sub groups that offer support. The national group is a good source of information and no, you don’t have to write romance to benefit from what they can offer. That’s where several friends have found on line critique groups.

    Nick and I belonged to a local group before we moved where there was everything from mainstream to science fiction to radio commentary. I also joined a small splinter group with two others when we all decided to try our hand at writing a novel for the same market. Over time, and since moving out in the country, I’ve let that go but I still send things to my daughter and run things by writing friends.

    You are so smart to realize that what you really need is the truth. I will add that finding a critique group that fits you and your personality and needs can be tricky so try a few and I bet you’ll find a fit. Honesty is great — but some people can get brutal and that doesn’t help much. You might also try talking to your local librarian to see if he/she knows of a local writing group where you live. Most are amenable to new members. Good luck!

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  1. […] Becky Miller’s link to  a post on Harvest House editor Nick Harrison’s blog about getting stalled because you’ve let go of the tension, also sparked some […]

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