Chevy Stevens (Writer) Hallie Ephron (Writer), Robert J Wiersema (Writer), Susanna Kearsley (Writer)
Started off with a section read from RW’s book
SK: Sentences/paragraph techniques to produce tension, R, what did you do on purpose in that passage?
RW: Sentence length gives tension. Do you remember ‘The Matrix’, the fight scene on top of the building just when Neo is coming into his power and there’s the moment the whole thing slows down so you can see the bullets - it’s so significant, that’s now called ‘bullet time’, to slow down intentionally to make the reader confront that moment. You throw in a long sentence to slow it down and condense the focus, then punctuate with short to break the tension. The interplay, the back and forth. Read it out loud to head where it needs to linger or break.
SK: do you do that with paragraph length too?
RW: well because I write longhand and then transcribe it later, I’m very aware of length and fragment paragraphs after a long section during revision, those fragments can act almost as gun shots.
HE: I’m always aware of white space, where there are many long paragraphs, that’s the visual cue that you need that short bit to summarize, or suddenly twist what has come before. Readers read the beginning and ending of chapters and paragraphs carefully and scan through the middle, so when you want to punctuate, that’s how/why I do it.
CS: You guys already covered all the good stuff, so yeah, I do that too. I do short sentences for sure, and in paragraphs, like in essays, you start a paragraph with an idea and try to bring it back at the end. In action scenes, or when a character is feeling a lot of tension, you’re seeing things in very quick snapshots, so short paragraphs, short sentences will create the tension, then later you can wind out and draw out again. Calculate. It does matter how it looks on the page.
HE: It’s also important when to bring the camera is really close, into the heart, the head, seeing the sweat. Then you pull out again. I know darkness/shadows are a little cliche, but they’re cliche because they work. You come home and there’s silence, shadows, and you ask what’s hiding in there, what’s going to happen. Good place to bring other senses to the scene.
RW; I built a scene with five different points of view, but I never allows the character to show their own feelings, only looking outward so there was no temptation to wallow, to disappear in their own heads. So I allowed 1st POV to catalogue the emotions of the other characters. Simon is very flat/observational (he’s a lawyer), but he’s viewing his wife’s much more emotional state. I wanted to build in the misapprehension/misunderstanding from looking at someone else’s emotions.
HE: IN 3rd POV, when the reader knows more than the character, you can create tension through that. Like, the guy in the closet, you’re worried when the MC walks into the dark house…
RW: There’s a contrast between reader/writer. The reader wants to be manipulated, but not used.
CS: All my books were 1st POV, and now I’m writing a 3rd POV and it’s almost freeing because I can explore the other characters feeling/etc. For example, the scene starts with a woman talking to a psychiatrist and you know she’s been kidnapped, held, and eventually come home. So we know she survived and you’d think that kills the tension, but instead, because you know she’s going to get kidnapped and want to find out how/why she gets away, there’s still that tension of wanting to know what happened.
HE: Sometimes you have to choose between surprise/shock and tension. You can’t really do both at once.
SK: Those are some great examples, but how do you how the tension over the whole book.
HE: You don’t want to explode everything in the first chapter. You can’t scream at the reader in the first chapter because they’ll stop listening, so it’s all about stakes. One thing that starts out as personal, and then becomes more universal
RW: I now want you to take a step back. Tension very natural transmogrifies into suspense. But looking at tension itself is valuable. Without tension, there’s no narrative. It’s the root of all narrative. We want the reader to keep asking questions, ‘what happens next’, and you build from there into specifics. What’s going to happen, what does this character want, what’s going to happen when they choose ‘x’. Suspense builds on that, those questions, the interplay between the reader and writer asking questions -> leading their expectations and telling them how to read what you’re putting in front of them, what’s important.
CS: We need to know why we should care. They don’t have to be liable, but there has to be a reason why we care, why do the stakes matter to the character. Emotional tension, that ache to talk, but not able to. Silences, etc. Chapter length, I do use that. (Girls like That) Jumps between two characters, and each section ended in a tension-filled moment and the sections got closer and closer together.
RW I don’t have a tremendous respect for Dan Brown, but I do respect the writing of it. It’s perfect. Each chapter ends in mid conversation, at a cliffhanger, a question (8 page chapters) he’s created the ‘potato chip book’ - just one more chapter, just one more chapter… you just have to keep going, and that’s how I lost Christmas Day 2008.
SK: Robert, a few years ago, said: ‘the reader should always know slightly more than the character. Let the reader know in advance. The reader’s expectations must both be met, and undermined.’ In Robert’s words, shameless manipulation. You’re telling lies to get the response you want. Can you use a specific example, a technique to do this to a reader? Was there a focus technique you used?
RW: ‘Before I Wake’, one of the advantages to using 6 POV in this book is that I was able to the thing the filmmakers were able to do. Film is interesting because you don’t ever have people in a room like this and the room explodes. You’re show the people coming into the room, you’d see the blinking red light under the chair of the bomb, then you’d cut back to the room again, to the characters. I wanted that ability to show a mash-up of the POV’s of these people who were going to attack other people who were having a nice, quiet special intimate family moment -> the rekindling of a marriage on Christmas day. You know they’re going to be attacked, but you don’t quite know in what form the attack is going to happen.
HE: But you have to make sure the attack, but also the family drama, were equally interesting.
RW: For me, the highest stakes were this personal, family, emotional drama. I like to think that I did it well.
CS: Red herrings, someone meant to look guilty: the boyfriend looking guilty to the reader, but the main character not suspecting -> but making sure the mc didn’t just look too stupid to live.
SK: Let’s talk about pitfalls -> mistakes that break tension. What are things you avoid, that you have learned.
CS: info dumps, too much info in the wrong place, or not letting the reader work things out for themselves (over explaining/repeating)
HE: I think the subtle tighten and release is what’s tricky. You can’t have the tension continue, you have to break it or it gets annoying for the reader. Humour is a great way to relieve the tension and allows the reader to take a breath, recharge and move forward. Using a good technique in the wrong place is usually what kills it.
RW If you’re trying not to diffuse tension, it’s using something in the wrong place. A too long sentence in the wrong place, or a short one. Words can even do it because they don’t just have meaning, they have connotation. So if you accidentally use a word that has humorous connotation, you risk having the reader snicker. You’re weaving a spell, and the moment the reader is even twinged, things can go wrong.
Audience question: How do you hold the tension over the entire novel?
RW: Look at the way people are handling television now. There’s the series with same characters/setting. That’s the uber setting, and each season is a novel within itself with an overarching plot, and then you have 22 episodes, and over those episodes, it tells that story. Not all episodes will focus on that overarching story, some will only touch on them, but as it moves through the episodes, questions and answers and complicating factors that rise and fall, are introduced and answered.
HE: Hold your nose and write. You won’t know until it’s down, until you have other people read it and comment on it.
RW: It sounds like we know what we’re doing, the observations we’re making is from looking at our finished books, not from our first drafts. Once you have the words on the page you can step back and look at what you’re doing.
CS: I had that where I started a book with ___ fighting with a woman in a halfway house, and it was a great scene, but my editor pointed out that by starting with that scene, the reader would think that’s what the story was about, and that was a year into writing the story. So it had to be changed.
Audience question: What’s the difference between an unreliable narrator and lying to the reader?
HE: I never have a POV character lie to the reader. They can misunderstand, tell something the way they think it is, but are wrong (unreliable) My characters tell their version of the truth to the reader. I hate it when characters lie to the reader.
CS: We have to know what the POV character knows.
HE: The writer wants to the reader not to know later, and you can’t shine it that.
RW: Lying to the reader isn’t a ticket violation, it’s a death sentences. IF you want a master class on tension, ’Scott Turouuts (sp?) ’Presumed Innocent’. At the end, you don’t know if he’s actually killed the person or not.
‘The Murder of Roger Ackeroid’ - read.
Audience question: Do you think the reader is more empathetic, is there more tension in 3rd POV vs 1st POV?
RW: Objectively 3rd POV, there are fewer potential pitfalls because the writer has a wider pallet to play with. With 1st POV, you only know what the MC knows.
CS: My first 3 books were all 1st POV because it was a fast emotional connection, but there were pitfalls. I couldn’t cheat/manipulate the reader the same. IT’s limiting, but it wouldn’t have worked as well in 3rd POV because of the emotional tension.
HE: Try both ways and see. I believe you can be emotionally close/emotional/personal in either, but as a writer you may feel one is easier/works better for you. When you’re in 1st POV, you’re stuck. For claustrophobic, emotional tension, 1st POV works better.
RW: ‘Bedtime story’ has two 1st POV and one objective 3rd POV and one closer 3rd POV because of the level of intimacy I wanted for each part/character. But this is really hard. You have to do it right or it’s awful.
CS: It’s the same thing with present/past tense.
HE: There’s a reason god invented the delete key.
Audience question: Do you outline or write organically?
HE: yes/no, yes/no. I outline, then it goes off the rails, I re-outline, it goes off again. I outline because it makes me feel good, less scary, but in the end, it’s a mess.
CS: I do outline, most editors/agents want an idea of where it’s going, but it’s okay to go off if the story isn’t working. Don’t force it to stay on the outline. It’s a guideline more than a rule.
RW: I’d rather have a root canal than do an outline. I have a general idea, but I don't know who the character are at the start. I discover it as the reader would discover it. I write ‘in the headlight’ method. I write a few scenes, then jot a couple notes for the scenes I’m going to write in the next day. The only thing writing a novel teaches you is how to write that novel.
SK: I’m closest to Robert. I’m an engineers daughter so I like to give myself the illusion of control. Write with Scrivener so I can move stuff around and I don’t like to outline because I feel like then I’ve boxed myself in.