I was going through some of the early scenes in my novel recently and realized, sadly, that several of them are just really, really boring and probably at this point irrelevant. Time to wish them a fond goodbye and throw them out with the trash. There were others, however, that were just as boring but necessary to move the story forward. Those I'll need to keep and revamp. What they're lacking is any kind of tension or emotion-- something, anything, to engage the reader and make him want to read on.
Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says that most writers are aware that having tension on every page is the secret to great storytelling, but that few of us want to put in the time and effort to make it happen. In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook Maass shows how even a brief dialogue between buddies can be loaded with tension as in this passage from Harlan Coben's novel Gone for Good.
Another way to add tension to your fiction (or nonfiction) is to create reader anticipation for what's to come. A few years ago I came across an exercise that was part of a piece by Eric M. Witchey in "The Writer" ["Step by Step: Get the emotion into your fiction]. In this excerpt Witchey illustrates how a writer can take a simple action and expand upon it to "create sympathy and reader anticipation by implying or explicitly revealing future dramatic events":
While developing the short story "The Mud Fork Cottonmouth Expedition," which appeared in Polyphony 4 from Wheatland Press, I was faced with my own flaccid prose:
Gordon parked the moped, and we started our hunt.
This line delivers facts, but the reader response is, "So what?"
Contrast that line with Witchey's expanded scene below. To flesh out the scene and develop the reader's experience, he forced his narrator (Rick) to interpret every detail based on attitude specific to his current emotional state. In the revised scene that follows, "the two boys have just driven a moped to the river to hunt snakes. Gordon wants to amuse himself. Rick wants to impress the older boy. As you read, consider how and where the text creates sympathy and reader anticipation by implying or explicitly revealing future dramatic events:
He pulled a little black pack out from under the seat of the moped. It unrolled like one of Dad's wood-working tool sets. Inside were tools and some cigarettes. "Want one?"
"Nah," I said. I tried to sound like I might have said yes, but he laughed anyway.
He flipped the lid on his Zippo lighter and lit it up. "Keeps the mosquitoes away."
"Yeah," I said. "So, these moccasins. How do you catch 'em?"
"Different ways." He followed a gravel trail behind the bridge abutment guardrail, past the concrete footings and down under the steel span that held up the pavement. On the broken concrete below the bridge, he picked his way down to the water's edge and walked right into the river up to his knees.
"Come on," he said.
I picked my way across the rubble. "I'm coming." At the water, I hesitated.
"Afraid of leeches?" he asked. "Smoke in the blood keeps 'em off." He grinned around the edges of his Marlboro.
"So, what's keeping you? It's easiest to walk in the water."
It was my moment of truth. I was about to put my brand new Converse tennis shoes into the water of the Mud Fork, water I shouldn't have been anywhere near, shoes that were supposed to keep me through the coming school year, with a guy who was smoking, and we'd got there on a moped, and I didn't have permission for any of this, and if the leeches did get me or if I drowned or if I even fell and got cut, I'd be grounded for freaking ever!
Gordon didn't care. He didn't have to ask. He could smoke. He had keys to the storage and a moped. He turned and waded away in the brown water.
I stepped in, and the water was up to my waist. My feet sank into the muck on the bottom. Pockets of iridescent oil rose to the surface of the water and trailed away from my legs.
In the same article (from a different story), Witchey gives us an example of another missed opportunity to create emotion, tension, and reader anticipation:
Marletta walked down the street looking for a place to hail Vincent's cab.
Here the character is involved in a goal-oriented action. We know what she wants, but as readers, we are not engaged. There is no tension in that single sentence, no emotion. In the revised scene below, the author allows his POV character to interpret the setting based on attitude--Marletta's current emotional state--as she pursues her goal. Notice how the author creates tension and reader anticipation by implying or explicitly revealing future dramatic events:
The pay-me pumps were a given in her business, but three-day old slush wasn't. Slipping and bouncing buns on the concrete would total her fox vest and the silk-slink dress she used to display her goods. Vincent's cab would be along in a few. He was a clock-work kinda guy, but the slush under her bucking spikes didn't care. She hobbled along under shop awnings, one foot in the melt by the building and the other slipping in icy slime. She tried to sway with the slip from knees and hips in case Vincent drove up behind her. A patch of salted sidewalk under an awning invited her, but it was Gustav's Deli. She'd only have a minute there before Gussie came out with his broom. Her faux Rolex said four-twenty. About right. Grabbing the awning crank mounted on the brick building, she stepped out of icy slime and stood in front of Gustav's window. She opened her fox vest to the Canadian cold front and hoped her charms could convince Vincent to help her feed the kids.
Eric M. Witchey's fiction has appeared nationally and internationally in magazines and anthologies. He has published in multiple genres under several names. His how-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer's Digest Magazine, Writer's Northwest Magazine, Northwest Ink, and in a number of on-line publications. His fiction has won recognition from Writers of The Future, New Century Writers, Writer's Digest, and www.ralan.com. Click here for a short, mini lesson from Eric on the ABC's of how to get emotion into your fiction (from the series "Five Minutes on Fiction").