I am heading to my high school alma mater later this week to talk to the students about writing. The classes are working on writing short mysteries so the teacher asked me to talk about building tension in a scene. To me, whether I’m writing a love story or a murder mystery, the one thing I aim to do is make my writing excruciating. When I say “Make it excruciating” I don’t mean write something so bad that no one could possibly read it. Though, believe me, I have written my fair share of excruciating prose that, for the sake of humanity, will never see the light of day.
By excruciating, I mean, I try to remember to slow down and take the time to build a scene, build the tension and stir up the emotion. For me, a satisfying scene resembles a balloon that is inflated to full, then inflated some more and then just when that balloon could not possibly hold another ounce of air, and one more puff of air. Now, the balloon is stretched so far that you cringe and move ever so slowly for fear it will pop. Then, and only at the moment that the balloon is inflated to its absolute limits, you produce a long, sharp, glistening needle. Ever so slowly, you bring that needle closer and closer to the balloon.
Now that’s excruciating!
Does the needle pierce the balloon with a violent pop? Does the needle pierce the balloon through both sides and the balloon remains in tact? Or, at the very moment the needle is about to puncture the balloon, do you let it go and watch it sail aimlessly around the room until it hits the floor? Don’t ask me, it’s your balloon.