Piling On

by Bruce Blake


One of the more annoying habits I’ve developed as an author is in how I read books and watch movies and TV. Instead of being able to just enjoy the escapism of losing myself in a good story, I’m constantly analyzing what’s being inputed into my brain. Why did this scene work? Why didn’t that one? How come I care about this character, but not that one? I learn a lot, but it sure takes the joy out of relaxing.

One of the things I’ve been noticing lately is tension. I’ll give two examples.

JohnDiesAtTheEnd-001First, I’m reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s an urban fantasy/horror about a couple of guys and a drug called soy sauce. I picked the book up because I saw it on a list of books the list-writer deemed scarier than their movie versions. Sounded good to me. The book got me from the beginning due to its highly imaginative imagery (I’d never before come across a monster made up of frozen meats in any other literature), and that kept me reading, though it’s not the best written book (five sentences in a row that begin with the word ‘I’ normally causes me to launch a paperback across the room). Now that I’m halfway through the book, I’m struggling and the reason is because of the tension.

There’s too much.

That’s not a comment I normally make–there can never be too much tension–but it is the case this time simply because it never lets up enough to allow us to care about the characters. One thing happens after another, after another, after another, without time for a breath. Sometimes, a book just needs a little room.

The second example comes from the TV show The Shield, which I’ve recently discovered on Netflix. I finished watching season three last night and it was really the impetus behind this post. If you haven’t seen the show and are likely to watch it, you might not want to read any further…here there be spoilers.

The main story line of the season revolves around the anti-hero and his cop friends stealing millions from the Armenian mob. Sounds like there’d be lots of tension there, right? Stealing the shield, Michael Chiklis, cop showsfrom brutal criminals carries a ton of danger. But the stakes are raised when they discover some of the money was marked by the treasury department in a sting operation, so now the feds are after the robbers as well as the Armenians. Pretty tense, but it gets worse. A girlfriend of one of the cops discovers the money and takes some to send to her mother, who spends it, and the marked bills get noticed. Add to that in-fighting and distrust amongst our anti-hero’s team, their names and faces being leaked to the mob, and a suspicious captain, and the tension meter is about ready to explode.

So what makes it more palatable? It’s the things that go on in between–the dynamics between the characters, or with their families. Love interests, rivalries, an ulcer. Between the tense moments, there’s room to move and get to know the people involved, pieces to reveal who they are and what motivates them rather than watching them being thrown around like riders on an out of control tea cup ride at the fair. And because we get the chance to know them, the tense moments reveal even more about their characters, drawing us further in, making us care and leaving us wanting to find out more.

The Fore in Fiction, Donald Maass, A few years ago, I took  Donald Maass’ Fire in Fiction workshop, and one of the things he preaches is tension on every page (it was a fantastic workshop and I suggest any writer who has the opportunity to learn from Mr. Maass should take it). His advice was to print out your manuscript, throw it up in the air, and collect it out of order, then read it. By reading out of order, you see each page as an individual bit and can analyze it on its own rather than knowing what’s going to come next (coincidentally, it’s also a good way to proof read). Make sure there’s tension on every page, but include your characters in the proceedings, don’t just pile things on until they and the readers are smothered leaving neither hope nor care.

What books have you read that do a great job of managing tension? Any that have too much? Too little?


Bruce Blake is the author of the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series, the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy, and When Shadows Fall (The First Book of the Small Gods). Few people know it, but tension is actually his middle name…or perhaps Alan.



2 comments on “Piling On

  1. First off: “The Shield” is simply the best show ever. And if you think it’s tense at the end of Season 3, wait until the “endgame” starts in Season 5…

    One of the biggest “white knuckle” reads for me was Stephen King’s “Misery”. I don’t often blaze through books, but that one had me so freaked out and on edge with tension I had no choice but to zoom through the entire book in one day. That is one ridiculously well-written thriller.

    • Don’t tell me that, Steven…I’ll be spending my next day off languishing on the couch and watching the rest of the series!

      Stephen King is one of the masters when it comes to tension and buy-in on the part of the readers. If we’re going to bring him up, I’d have to add “The Shining” and “It” to the list. Again, the thing that makes the tension work so well is how much the reader is made to care about the characters.

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