How Much Tension Can You Create in Just 3 Sentences?


Jillian Green DiGiacomo's photo.
I survived my visit to my high school alma mater last week.  It was a bit of an out of body experience to set foot in the building after so many years. But it was a blast hanging out with the students.  As I mentioned in my last post, I was asked to discuss the best ways to build tension when writing fiction.  I gave a modified version of the balloon theory and then introduced the literary device of a time clock: a deadline, a ticking time bomb, a damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks are all literary time clocks that help keep a reader riveted. Fiction can be engaging if, for example, two characters may or may not eventually fall in love.  But if one character is to be married within a matter of hours or shipped off to war at daybreak or turned into a werewolf at sunset, that love story is now bursting with intensity.
So, gave each class about 10 minutes to write a 3 sentence time clock: a mini scene with a built in sense of urgency. The students came up with their own brilliant time clocks: they wrote about an avalanche, a basketball game, a child locked in a hot car, and a race for the last brownie at a bake sale to name just a few.

Give it a try. Limit yourself the to 3 sentences and see just how much tension you can create. Then share it here please!!

All Good Fiction is Excruciating


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.