8 Ways to Create Tension in Writing or HOW TO DO THE DANGLE

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/Beth Wareham

Tension in a book is often why we turn a page, that endless sense of WTF IS GONNA HAPPEN! The really good writers have an instinct for taking you to the edge, throwing you off and bringing you back up again to stand refreshed, marveling at the view. Corporate entertainment wonks call this the “twist” but it’s merely a good way to write: keep everyone on a dangle.

How to do the dangle? Below are a few simple tricks I’ve learned over the years to keep readers wanting to read onward. You’ll have to ask them if any of it worked.

But here they are. Try some in your writing. See what might work for you:

1. End a sentence with a question of sorts. I don’t mean a question with a big old “?” at the end, I mean a question like “will Patty have sex with the giant hot black man standing in front of her…” That’s the moment I’d break the chapter and make the reader wait.

2. Alluding to dark pasts. I love this one. A completely random character suddenly gets full use by remarking upon a secret buried in a hero or heroine’s past. Just try and tell the reader at one point what that past was. This is why we have sticky notes.

3. Creating a scene and leave the resolution off. Say “how was she to know that _____ was in her past, but perhaps her future as well?”

4. Start a scene in mid-action (Hillary Mantel is a GENIUS at this) and the reader is entranced trying to figure out what’s happening when. Finish the action and then go back and start the beginning of it as a flash back. Page-turning catnip.

5. Paragraph breaks: Use paragraphs breaks like you are a creating a trail of crumbs and each break is a step forward to pick the next one off the ground. The first sentence of the next paragraph pulls them so ….spread it out:

“He found the receipts from Wichita Falls in the pocket of his yellow short sleeved shirt. His shoes, socks and pants appeared unsullied, but the plastic protector inside his pocket of receipts had been crumpled, clawed at even. Jean knew he was cheating on her.”

6. WORD CHOICE: Chose tense words. For instance, “Walter stood in line, hoping he’s soon get to the window.”

“Walter stood in line, sweet meandering down his spine, as he waited to get to the window and buy his ride towards freedom.”

The words “sweat” and “ride towards freedom” suggest a tension you want the reader to feel, not just that he’s trying to buy a bus ticket. Someone’s chasing him. Use every moment you have to keep the mood of the book right and that means WORD CHOICE.

7. Text reads faster when sentences are short and text reads slower when sentences are longer. Use it to your advantage and vary the lengths frequently to keep the reader’s attention. For instance:

“Peter slammed it down. For thirty years, he had kept the will secret from the family but after the chaos, the loss, the blood, the ICU, the whispered forced words of his dying mother, the will meant nothing any more, nothing in the face of eternity without the one person who loved him no matter what.”

You see, one short one, one long one. Easy!

8. Dare to dangle. If there is one thing that kills a book quickly, it is a fear of being audacious, a fear of shock and awe. Dangle your reader over a ledge, give him a ride, take her flying, let the kid go down the slide faster than he ever thought possible. Work the tension of life and death into your manuscript because that is the tension we know, that is the tension we live with ever day.

Tension is the human condition. It will feel very familiar to your reader and they will like reading it.

Now go write.

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Cured of Hoarding in One Purchase

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www.shadowteams.com
/Beth Wareham

I have heard a lot of reasons why humans love books. The love of story is probably the best one. I also like the philosophical idea that a book represents time as it will take you time to read it. The more books you have, the more time you have. Have a lot of books, live forever.

We build special shelves for them, stack them atop one another in a column that reaches the ceiling, pile them beside the bed. They shout, “we’re smart! We read!” to all visitors. We may have read some or all of them. The real answer is probably more like one or two.

Humans love to hoard books. It is more acceptable than gathering large numbers of say, cats or ironing boards, in the same room. It is acceptable stock-piling. It’s kinda weird.

41DjGgGH-5L._AA160_I, too, was once a hoarder of books. I have bought and not read so many of them, I should be on a booksellers’ Hall of Fame list somewhere. I would squat in dingy corners of Half-Priced Books trying to find the 20 I needed that week to live. I would read three or four and feed off the paper molecules of the rest. I was hungry and young and my brain was so needful.

A year ago, I approached one of my piles and pulled up an old favorite. I held it in my hands lovingly, remembering when I bought it. I ran my hand across the cover, smiled, opened the book slowly and a big fat centipede fell out. In New York City. Technology and nature had reached a tipping point in my life.

Kindle Paper whiteWith centipede disgust, I ordered my first e-reader. It arrived and I loaded it with a couple of books, tentatively, like they might explode. I put the reader in my bag. Now, what I loved to hoard – books – could be taken with me EVERYWHERE. It was like I had a Sears shed for my own special hobby and no one could come in and bother me. This e-reader was an anti-boredom machine that would make any journey bearable. The world can do what it wants: I’m gonna read.

Much of the dust-centipede breeding ground has been removed from my house. My allergies are better and I found my first husband, dead, under a pile of coffee table books. It was expected, but still sad.

On your reader, you create your own library, your secret world where your brain can play out of sight. On your reader, you can go anywhere and do anything without the paralyzing fear of not having the RIGHT book to read. On your reader, you have the tools to journey further and further into the world, taking your essentials with you. Sometimes with e-reader in hand, I feel like I’m a rocket ship, able to travel a long long way.

On your reader, you

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build a part of your life and take it with you, drawing on its strength as needed. Sure, I’ve got 237 titles on my Kindle – all stock-piled with glee – but the difference is no one can see and I, like all hoarders, feel better just knowing Euripides is there.

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GUNS DON’T KILL: PEOPLE WHO DON’T READ DO

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At the Florida State University Library this week, another dumb ass shot a book. Is that what all this rage is? BOOKS? Symbolically, yes.

We are at a “use your words” moment. As we look at all the pretty pictures and cat videos, our need for sharp pointed words honed by the reading of masters has never been greater. The psychological need to express yourself and be understood is a longing so deep, it cannot be separated from anything else inside of you or me. Only our words can save us.

Books were the part of a community that raised millions of Americans, all readers. Our parents were not perfect but I remember building a jerry-rigged faith via Black Elk Speaks and Seven Story Mountain. I learned about the glory of failure from Saul Bellow. I wanted to see the world because of West with the Night and In Patagonia.

The book that took the hit earlier in the week was a religious work, fine thinking from Medieval Europe. The book above that took the hit is the King James Bible. Bullets and God are the worst kind of stupid.

I’m glad the books were there to save their keepers. I hope the keepers honored their saviors by reading them and using the words inside: Those words are just so very beautiful.

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Lena Dunham versus Jane Austen in the “New Adult” Smackdown

Here goes the idiotic “publishing thing” again. A marketing demographic – in this case, young people from the ages of 18 – 22 – is being hijacked as a “genre” for fiction. They call it “new Adult.” If that doesn’t make you, presumably an adult, run and woof into a trash can, I don’t know what will.

Publisher’s Weekly even had a podcast, or something. Young editors, not conversant in how the internet works or in fact their own competition – crowed about this new genre that would step in where chick lit failed.

Here are the words I have for “new Adult” aficionados and the editors and writers who fall for this malarky. You have some shoes to fill:

1. Jane Austen
2. Mark Twain (remember Huck Finn? You read it? In school, maybe?)
3. F Scott Fitzgerald (lyrics by Jay-Z)
4. Charlotte Bronte
5. William Faulkner (Quentin wasn’t very old, kids)
6. Dostoyevsky (You best get off that toilet and write, Lena!)
7. Carson McCullers

“New adult” is a selling term that I should never have heard of. It’s a term that tells you what website to promote a book on.

Do NOT turn your talented authors into writers churning out text for a marketing term. You put them in a ghetto where those who define themselves as “adult” will never find them. For shame.

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