Episode 207: Revising for Tension in Every Scene

On November 19th Kasie and Rex take on tension (again) and segue into the revision-by-scene process. Kasie went to Clemson so this episode was recorded on the 17th. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Tension in Scenes: Revising each scene to make sure it meets expectations


  • We did it again
  • Why writing is hard (a possible rant)
  • A specific way to revise for tension
  • How to do it
Scene or Sequel? Vocab for Revising for Tension | Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

So we said last week that this week we were going to do “writing isn’t easy so stop saying it is,” because our first resource was something shitty like “for dummies.”

Here’s the truth: writing is hard. Even when you suck at it. Even if it never gets published. Even if you’re feeling some weird cathartic flow. Writing is hard. Because words.

All those outlets tempted to oversimplify the process: don’t. It degrades us all. Not everyone can write. And even fewer people can do it well.

If you listen, I mean really listen, to the podcasts trying to make it sound easy, they’ll leave some clues as to how hard it actually is. Here are some examples:

  • #AmWriting – the 30 Day Revision. Okay. Full manuscript revise in 30 days? Yeah, but it took 8+ hours per day. Fail.
  • 8 Simple Steps to Create Tension – “simple” includes create internal and external conflict and create secondary conflict. Oh, and raise the stakes. “Simple.” Gotcha.
  • Writing (well) without a degree or an MFA – The Novel Marketing podcast and The S#it No One Tells You About Writing; can you do it without a degree? Yes. Or, it depends.
  • Killing Your Darlings – the Writing Excuses podcast; this is a phrase used to describe cutting even the stuff you really, really like in your own work. You should cut them. And if you’re not sure why, see the previous list item. On #AmWriting one of the authors said she heard an interview with an author who had never heard the phrase “killing your darlings” so .. um, yeah.
  • NaNoWriMo – this is the throne of lies you’ve been looking for. Of course they say it’s easy. They want you to participate. If they told you how hard it was, you wouldn’t do it. Duh.

Segment 2

Okay, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk tension. We’ll start with the shit we left out last week:

Here are 10 facts that tell you how to use tension in your story:

  • Tension is stored energy (that’s just science) so what’s being withheld, what are we waiting for? 
  • Tension isn’t about the event itself (it’s almost never as bad as we think it will be) but about the build up to it and the what if surrounding it
  • Any event can inspire tension – the stakes don’t have to be high for everyone they just have to be high for the characters in the story.
  • Tension is about consequences – or “the presumed emotional impact of possible consequences” how something might turn out, what happens if it doesn’t
  • Imagined consequences can work even better – than actual outcomes; dread, worry, intensity of emotion can create tension; does that tension ever have to pay off?
  • Heighten tension through character – what do they care about? What do they want? That’s where the stakes come from
  • Share the tension across the characters – use what they say, what they do, to expand the tension across the scene and the story
  • Or don’t – what’s not being said or done can be just as tense; withhold something from another character, prevent action, the “not” can keep tension between a single character and the reader.
  • Tension has to either be resolved or build – it cannot stay at a low boil forever. (I combined 9 & 10)

Segment 3

So I’m revising the vampire novel and at the SCWA’s Fall Conference I found a strategy for how to do that. Specifically, how to analyze every scene to determine if it has the required amount of tension, and if it moves the plot forward in a meaningful way.

And today, dear listeners (and readers) I’m going to share that method with you. So this is based on Leigh Stein’s talk Wants and Needs: Plotting Begins with Character which she worked out of John Truby’s text The Anatomy of Story. Several people in the room were familiar with the text, but I was not. Then I downloaded a copy (cuz I’m an academic and sometimes we get free stuff) and he literally says, “Everyone can tell a story.” ::facepalm::

In any case, Stein shared the following structure: Every piece of your story is either a scene or a sequel. This bit I found on KM Weiland’s site and we’ve used them before. But it may not be original because the concepts are also here:

Scenes are made up of:

  • Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.
  • Conflict: The obstacles standing in the way.
  • Disaster: The outcome, what happens that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal.

Think: Scenes consist of Goals and Setbacks as characters take action to move the story forward.

Sequels are made up of:

  • Reaction: How the character reacts to the Disaster.
  • Dilemma: The choice the character faces because of the Disaster.
  • Decision: What the character decides to do next (new goal or new attempt to reach old goal).

So, for each scene in the vampire novel, using a spreadsheet, I’ve been asking:

Is this a scene or a sequel?

If it’s a scene: what is the goal? What is the conflict? What is the outcome? – I had a problem with Blue’s agency in earlier drafts. He has a tendency to let things happen to him, to be a passenger in this life. Which was sort of fine – I still have Raven manipulating him through the first section of the book – but he has to think he’s in charge.

If it’s a sequel: what is Blue’s reaction to the disaster from the previous scene? What is the dilemma and how is it harder because of what we just saw? What will Blue do now?

This is the first time I’ve been so methodical about a revision and it’s been both validating when I find the scenes are already structured this way (like After December managed to follow this rhythm even though I’d never heard of it before) but also worrisome when I don’t see the structure and have to revise. What have I already disclosed? What does the reader need to know now?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s