Pacing for Power, Part II – Increasing Tension & Suspense
Using style and pacing techniques to increase tension and suspense:
In Part I, we discussed techniques for picking up the pace in your novel to create a real “page turner.” But at some of the most critical, tense or emotional moments of a story, you actually want to slow things down, in order to give the reader a chance to realize the significance of the problem and appreciate the challenges the character is facing to overcome the obstacles. This stretching-out technique also increases the tension, draws out the suspense and intrigue, and emotionally engages the readers to get their adrenaline flowing. So don’t zip past those crucial pivoting moments of the story. Milk them for all they’re worth.
Here are some techniques to maximize the tension, suspense and intrigue in nail-biting scene.
Tips for increasing tension and suspense by slowing down pacing:
* Write longer, more involved sentences. This forces the reader to pay more attention and concentrate on every word.
* Use more description to show exactly how and why the setting, circumstances, and characters are significant and ominous.
* Exploit setting details to maximum effect by using darkness, shadows, harsh weather, eerie stillness, ominous sounds, suspicious smells, etc.
* Make time pass in slow motion to create anticipation, anxiety, and rising tension.
* Move the camera lens in close and show minute details that seem off or could be important in some way.
* Heighten the senses of the POV character and show the results—tell us every little sight, sound and smell they’re picking up, since what they perceive could be critical to their survival.
* Let us know what the POV character is thinking and worrying about, analyzing and planning.
* Show your characters’ increased apprehension and other heightened emotional reactions to what’s going on around them.
An extreme but very effective example of this is when bestselling thriller writer, Lee Child, goes into slow-motion to show a pivotal scene in his novel, Worth Dying For. Our hero, Jack Reacher, is approaching a suspicious-looking guy in a deserted parking lot. He needs to make a split-second decision, and if it’s the wrong one, it will very likely cost him his life, and the bad guys will continue terrorizing the town and harming innocent people, including children. Lee Child uses five pages in Chapter 32 to show/describe an action that literally takes seconds, including Reacher’s thought processes, decisions, actions, and reactions. Child uses lengthy, highly detailed sentences and long paragraphs that rivet our attention as we zero in on every word. One sentence actually goes on for a page and a quarter, and several others are half a page long.
Here’s the second half of one of those sentences, after Reacher decides to slug the guy hard in the gut:
“…his head snapping forward like a crash test dummy, his shoulders driving backward, his weight coming up off the ground, his head whipping backward again and hitting a plate-glass window behind him with a dull boom like a kettle drum, his arms and legs and torso all going down like a rag doll, his body falling, sprawling, the hard polycarbonate click and clatter of something black skittering away on the ground, Reacher tracking it all the way in the corner of his eye, not a wallet, not a phone, not a knife, but a Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol, all dark and boxy and wicked.”
I don’t think it’s necessary to slow the action down this much to be riveting, and you certainly wouldn’t want to write or read a whole novel with lengthy, minutely detailed sentences like these! But used well, this technique can be very effective. Not everyone can successfully pull off this kind of stretching out of a moment for maximum effect, but it’s useful to read bestselling thrillers to find different successful renditions of this technique.
Do you have any really good examples to share of novels where time is slowed down for pivotal scenes?
Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, August 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website or blog.