Write Your Family Story – Part 5 – Tension

Write Your Family Story – Part 5 – Tension

In Part 5 of Write Your Family Story we’re talking about tension, the ebb and flow of suspense in a novel that keeps readers turning pages to the end. Tension is a must in a story. How do you create it and keep it going?

One way is to make your main characters badly want something that’s difficult for them to achieve. Continually thwart their efforts and expectations. Make them take risks that may or may not pan out. Keep readers guessing to the end as to whether they will succeed or fail.

In Giddyap Tin Lizzie, for example, Will O’Shaughnessy dreams of having his own farm.  However, early on, his grandfather disinherits Will, leaving the family farm to his brother, Frank. For awhile, Will has no money to buy his own farm. Later, however, he becomes wealthy enough selling cars in town that he can afford to return to the plow. But he’s not sure, then, that he wants to go back to hard scrabble farm life. Later still, with a business that commands his time, a growing family, and challenges that include an estranged brother, there’s a long stretch in which Will completely sets aside his dream. When he does resurrect the idea in earnest, his wife and oldest daughter object. He buys a farm despite this. Later, he loses it when disease sweeps through his herd. In the end, Will has one last chance to fulfill his dream. Will he take it?

See the ebb and flow of tension? It not clear until the end whether Will can ever achieve his lifelong ambition.

Your setting can mirror your character’s emotional state as another tension creator. Early in Giddyap Tin Lizzie, Will milks cows and ponders his future while his grandfather’s mutilated body lies a few feet away. Thunder shakes the building and lightning flashes through the windows. Bess, a heifer that has just lost her first calf, lets out a mournful bellow. Her first cry pierces the wind and driving rain. Her second cry and then a series of quick, desperate calls are an eerie complement to the morbid setting.

You can build tension by stretching the scene. In Giddyap Tin Lizzie, after Michael’s death at Christmas from pneumonia, Will is so distraught that he can’t remove the tree from his son’s room, and can’t remove Michael’s belongings. For almost a month Will avoids acknowledging Michael’s death. Finally, his wife convinces him to move forward.

In another example of how to stretch a scene, Will wants to sell his business. But it’s the Great Depression, the worst time possible to sell anything. He asks his competitor to buy the dealership;  his competitor schemes to get it for little or nothing. Through predatory practices, the competitor progressively undercuts Will’s ability to profit. For ten chapters it appears that Will might lose everything. But just when his competitor springs the trap, Will turns the table and prevails.

You can also build tension by playing to readers’ senses. When Will’s son, Michael, is dying of pneumonia in Giddyap Tin Lizzie, his breath comes in “short shallow gasps,” and his skin turns blue.  He screams in pain and his body shakes so hard that his teeth chatter. He gasps for air, coughs, and spits phlegm. The doctor wipes greenish, foul-smelling mucus from his lips. Sweat flows down his brow and his chest heaves as his breathing rapidly increases. In the end, even his fingernails turn blue. Still reading, aren’t you? Playing to your senses grabbed and held you!

Keep the tension fluid. Move from one intense situation to another. Over the course of three pages of Giddyap Tin Lizzie, Mayor Burns commits suicide, David Tate is shot, and Bernie Burns is arrested for murder. However, don’t keep the reader in a state of anxiety indefinitely. Take a break from intense segments by periodically inserting calmer scenes.

Finally, fill your reader’s minds with worries about possible future events. Keep as many plot threads as possible open-ended until the story concludes. In Bittersweet Harvest, will Will ever start a co-op? Will cousin Gusta permanently disrupt the family’s harmony? Can Will keep his farm? Or, as Grandpa Duffy predicted, will he sink under the weight of the responsibility?

Next in the Write Your Family Story series: Part 6 – Choices.

Start at the top: Write Your Family Story Series Introduction



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