Writing Craft: Managing Tension with Peaks and Troughs


Today we have a special guest post by author Rayne Hall! I’d like to take a moment to thank Rayne for stopping by and providing such an excellent post. Welcome, Rayne, to the Guild of Dreams!


Writing Craft: Managing Tension with Peaks and Troughs

by Rayne Hall

by xiwik on deviantart

A large peak on a flat sea!
Artwork by xiwik on deviantart

Tension is good. It makes the reader turn the pages. However,  constant high tension soon gets dull. The readers can’t sustain continuous scared excitement, and after a while, instead of roused, they become bored.

It’s like the waves on a stormy sea: the peaks are only high because of the troughs between them. If there were only continuous peaks without any troughs, the sea would be flat.

Your job as writer is to create not just the peaks, but the troughs which make the peaks look high.

Allow your protagonist to relax and get her breath back before throwing her into the next frightening experience experience. During this brief relaxation of the tension, your reader’s heartbeat returns to normal – so it can accelerate again.

If you’re writing a horror, thriller, paranormal or fantasy novel, some of the tension stems from the reader fearing for the main character’s safety. Here’s what the scary part of your story might look like if it consisted only of peaks, and how a skilled writer might handle it by alternating peaks and troughs.

Peaks-only version

The heroine gets tortured by the villain. (peak)

She escapes by scaling the dungeon walls. (peak)

As soon as she’s outside, she gets pursued by a charging bull. (peak)

To get away from the bull, she crawls into a narrow cave where she is immediately attacked by a snake. (peak)

This is too much relentless scare. By the time the heroine faces the snake, the reader scarcely cares anymore.

Peaks & troughs version

The heroine gets tortured by the villain. (peak)

Finally, he retires for the night, and the pain ceases. (trough)

She escapes by scaling the dungeon walls. (peak)

Outside, there’s bright light, clean air, the scents of meadow flowers. (trough)

A bull comes charging. (peak)

To escape from the bull, she crawls into a narrow cave. The bull can’t get in. She catches her breath and bandages her wounds and lies down to get some much-needed sleep. (trough)

A hiss alerts her to the presence of a dangerous snake. (peak)

The troughs don’t have to be long. One paragraph is often enough. You can insert a short trough in the middle of a scary scene, or as a transition between two scary scenes. At other times, you may want to insert a whole “trough” scene between two “peak” scenes. For example, in the climax of a thriller, you can insert a non-scary scene, perhaps a tender love scene, between two terrifying sections.

Don’t overdo the troughs. If they are too long, or if there are many of them, they can make your writing boring. Don’t allow your reader to become too relaxed. Use the troughs sparingly and keep them short.


If you’re a writer and want to discuss this technique, please leave a comment. I’ll be around for a week and will reply. I love answering questions.

A vision of Rayne by artist Fawnheart

A vision of Rayne by artist Fawnheart

Rayne Hall has published more than forty books under different pen names with different publishers in different genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol 1, 2, 3, 4 (creepy horror stories), Six Historical Tales (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and Writing Scary Scenes (instructions for authors).

She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies and more.

Rayne has lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal and  has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England.


4 comments on “Writing Craft: Managing Tension with Peaks and Troughs

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