If you've read one of Bradley P. Beaulieu's books or stories, you know his works are full of tension and high stakes, even in scenes that seem to be between action. How does he do it? Well, Brad was kind enough to explain in this article, using examples from Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games! And don't forget to check out Brad's newest book in his epic fantasy Shattered Sands series, A Veil of Spears!
I heard a wise writer once say that if nouns are the frame of a car, then verbs are the engine. They make the sentence go. If we abstract that same concept to a scene or a story, then conflict, or tension, is the thing that makes a story “go.”
When I started writing, I’d known about tension in a story in an instinctual (not to mention woefully incomplete) sort of way—after all, it makes sense that readers are interested in those big scenes in which action happens or conflicts are resolved. But it was formalized for me when I read Donald Maass’s excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, in which he spends several pages on the subject. In it, he brings up the notion not only that tension should be present in the story, such as in the high points of chapters and the turning points of the novel, it should be present on every page.
At the time, this seemed counterintuitive. I mean, there are times when characters relax, aren’t there? Times when they’re recovering from some setback and they’re thinking about their options and choosing which way to go? These are known as the sequel in scene structure parlance, and Maass contends that taking time to assess and making plans for the next line of attack is an outdated technique. He uses the example of John Grisham and the thriller technique of moving breathlessly from scene to scene, hardly giving the reader a chance to breathe before moving on to the next high-tension situation. And there are plenty of other examples in fiction that use similar techniques.
Let’s take a look at some examples from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Here’s the opening paragraph of the book:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Collins opens her novel with Katniss waking, and in five short sentences introduces us to the primary driver of the entire novel: the reaping. We don’t yet know what the reaping is, but with the title and the nature of the word itself, Collins has created a mystery for the reader, one that involves Katniss’s sister, Prim. It’s an instant tension creator, and it creates not just one type of tension, but two. First, it makes us wonder what the reaping is, a mini-mystery that makes us want to read on to discover its nature, and second, it creates a sense of foreboding over Prim. We don’t even know who Prim is, but we do know that Katniss cares about her, and that alone is enough to not only deepen Katniss’s character, but make us worry over—or at the very least wonder—what’s going to happen to Prim, and how it will affect Katniss.
Here’s the second paragraph:
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Here we discover that Prim is in fact Katniss’s sister, and that their mother is nearby. However, in that same breath we find that Katniss’s mother, even while sleeping, looks “still worn but not so beaten-down.” Not so beaten-down, as if to say her mother’s normal state in life is “beaten down,” and it’s only through sleep that she can manage to look merely worn. And the cocooning of Prim should not go unnoticed. We’ve just learned that there may be some danger to Prim, and now we find her “cocooned” in her mother’s arms, as though her mother, even in sleep, feels the need to protect her.
In the third paragraph we’re introduced to Buttercup, a cat that Katniss nearly drowned in a bucket, partially for the fleas it carried but more because “the last thing [Katniss] needed was another mouth to feed.”
In three short paragraphs, Collins has already laid down subtle clues that give hint to the danger this family is in. The reader doesn’t understand the nature of the danger, but they know good and well that things are not right in this world.
Note also that this is not a hectic, helter-skelter sort of scene. One of the dangers for young writers is to take this notion of “tension on every page” and take it to mean that there should be nonstop action from front cover to back. This isn’t the case. Years ago, while I was attending Clarion, this became clearly evident when I read a story that started powerfully and hardly took a breath until it was over, showing scene after jam-packed scene of action and hard dialogue and, yes, tension. The trouble was not only that it never paused to take a breath, but that it also crammed the scenes with the same kind of tension. And there’s the rub. When the reader is exposed to the same sort of thing over and over, they become numb to it. It’s like listening to white noise. When you first start listening, it may seem loud because your mind is subconsciously comparing it to silence, but soon it will feel “normal” and will cease to have the same effect it had when it began.
The lesson learned was this: a successful novel needs not only to vary the tension level, but it needs to combine a variety, and the most successful novels will combine them in different ways to create a symphony of anxiety within the reader to keep them turning the pages. Just take a look at mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. There are still action-packed sword fights and times of suspense and dread. And within sweeping tales like The Lord of the Rings, there are still times where Frodo pines for the life in the Shire, raising those memories in sharp relief against the arduous and danger-filled path he’s taking toward Mount Doom.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the types of tension in The Hunger Games. Within a few pages we learn more about District 12. Even the name—District 12—implies something deeper. Why not call it Madison or New Denver? Because Collins wants to paint her world in stark terms, and dividing this place into districts implies some form of governmental control. We learn that District 12 at this early hour is usually “crawling with coal miners” heading out for the morning shift, and that many have “long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces,” but today is the reaping, so why not sleep in a bit longer?
Later, we learn of the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that’s electrified some parts of the day, depending on whether the electricity is actually running. The fence is supposed to keep predators out of District 12, but it certainly implies that the inhabitants are meant to stay in. In fact, that very fear is confirmed only a few pages later. Trespassing into the woods, we are told, is illegal. This simple realization provides a bit of exposition, but it also builds Katniss’s character. She’s taking matters into her own hands. She’s taking the more dangerous route so that her mother and sister, and even Buttercup, have a better life.
We are also told that Katniss’s father was “blown to bits” in a mine explosion—an explosion so bad that “there was nothing to even bury”—and that Katniss still wakes up screaming for him to run. This is obviously something very personal to Katniss, but it also deepens our understanding of the conditions in which the coal miners work.
Through Katniss’s path toward the woods, our understanding of her and this world is deepening. But Collins is also creating a crucible of sorts. She’s laid the groundwork for the world in which Katniss was raised, in which she and her family now struggle to live, and she’s showing it to us, bit by bit. In other words, it is through this intimate knowledge of District 12 that we understand the way in which Katniss was forged. Beyond this worthy goal—so much about writing is having the words perform double- or triple-duty—we also have a societal sort of tension. We see not only that Katniss and her family are downtrodden, but that the world in which she lives is every bit as downtrodden. By the way, I use the term “world” only to describe the extent to which Katniss knows her world, which we find later is not much wider than District 12 itself. This is another form of tension, because it implies that knowledge is suppressed, that people are not free to move around and exchange information.
Now clearly this is all backdrop; it’s the canvas on which the story is painted. But this is a crucial skill to build, particularly for speculative fiction writers, who have different worlds to show the reader. And what better way to get the reader interested in the world than if the world itself is filled with tension?
When Katniss crosses the fence and enters the woods, she retrieves the bow her father made and we learn that possession of such weapons—even to hunt and gather food—is illegal. Anyone getting caught making weapons could be “publicly executed for inciting a rebellion.” And now we’re moving into a different sort of tension. This information paints the world, true, but it also reveals that Katniss is taking a risk by picking up the bow and hunting. She might not be executed for merely possessing one, but there would be harsh penalties were the wrong people to find out. And this tension plays foil to the harsh reality of Katniss’s situation. She has to hunt for food and a bit of money for other necessities. She and her mother are barely scraping by. We’re left with only one conclusion: that it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
And then Collins does something very interesting. We’d been heading on a certain trajectory up to this point. She’d been painting the world with a very grim brush indeed. And then we stumble across Gale…
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.
“Hey, Catnip,” says Gale.
We can feel the tension shedding from Katniss like rain. The troubles of the world melt away. And Gale seems more than a little thick not to notice that the smiles are for him and not for the woods. “Hey, Catnip,” he says to her in greeting, showing a certain familiarity between these two: not just friends, but close friends. This is the beginning of a romantic interest. There’s no obvious reference to sexual attraction, but make no mistake: this is a form of sexual tension. It’s clear the two like one another, and this is where such things often start, a friendship that turns into something more.
This is one of the many brilliant things about this opening chapter. Here Collins has been steadily building her world in a particularly dark way. In the hands of the inexpert writer, they might simply bull forth and continue to hammer the message home, but Collins instead sends us into the woods to meet Gale and have what I could only call an idyllic breakfast with a potential love interest. It would actually be romantic if it weren’t for the little reminders of how hungry they normally are and the reaping that’s about to take place. This focus on a friend and the picnic in the woods creates a variation of tension, a landscape of sorts. We know that the reaping is approaching—and by extension we know that something momentous is about to happen—but Collins delays the gratification of the reader by inserting a lovely scene filled with a different sort of tension.
And here is a very important lesson to learn. There are certain types of tension such as action—a fight or an argument—that create interest in the reader, but those are rather straightforward techniques. They’re techniques with short half-lives, and while they certainly have their place in fiction, it’s the long-building tension that keeps the reader interested over the course of a full novel.
I’d like to consider some of these from The Hunger Games, but first, let me make an observation. These different types of tension I’ve noted so far have come up in the first five pages of the novel—five pages!—And the story is rife with tension. Not in-your-face tension, mind you. That isn’t what we’re talking about. (Though there’s nothing necessarily wrong with starting a novel that way, either.) The point is that Collins has invested these opening pages with a ton of tension, and I would contend that it continues throughout the entire novel. Tension on every page can seem like a ridiculously hard ideal in the beginning, but I think the more you consider the breakout novels, the more you’ll see just how good those authors are at this very thing. And please, rid yourself of the notion that your novel will become too tense. First, it’s much more difficult to do than you think, and second, if you do find that it’s true (and I’ll grant you, it could happen), then the fix is to pull back and add more variety on subsequent drafts.
Stated simply: you’re trying to focus on those things that create tension and weed out those things that don’t. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a difficult line to walk, especially for those new to the concept, but it’s one you should take to heart and actively try to employ in your writing.
Back to long-term tension. Collins builds this concept of the reaping through the first half of chapter one, and then we get to the reaping itself. We discover that it’s a lottery in which children—not adults, but children—are chosen for the Hunger Games. Katniss is considering the odds for her and Gale, praying that neither one is chosen, when something even more shocking happens. Prim’s name is called. Her sister is chosen—something she hadn’t even considered in the slow buildup to the lottery and the naming of the tributes.
This in itself is so packed with tension that I defy anyone to stop reading when it’s revealed that Prim is the tribute. And yet, this isn’t even my point. My point is that by the end of chapter one we learn much about what the games are, and we learn quickly thereafter that Katniss volunteers to be the girl tribute from District 12. But it isn’t until chapter eleven, 148 pages into the book, that we actually see the games themselves. This is the point at which Katniss is raised up in the glass cylinder to the arena, the grounds where the games take place. That’s right, forty percent of the novel has passed us by before we see the eponymous games, something Collins has been building toward since the very first paragraph of the novel. That, my friends, is some skilled manipulation. She knows we want to see the games, she teases us with it constantly, and she holds off on gratification as long as she possibly can.
This is another key to using tension, delaying gratification. Let me say it another way, though. When you grant the reader what they’re looking for—whether it’s an argument that’s been building between two colleagues vying for the same position, whether it’s sex after chapters of careful innuendo, whether it’s a battle to the death between children that you’ve been hinting at for 148 pages—there will be a release of tension once the encounter is played out. One only need look at sitcoms like Friends to see how dull a storyline can get once the sex is consummated. (Rachel and Ross, anyone?) Everything leading up to it left the viewer with an itch in the form of various implied questions: When will they actually do it? Will it be as good as they’d hoped? Will they stay together?
Holding off on gratification is no easy thing to do, though. If you’re not careful, you can end up with page after boring page of scenes filled with nothing but an obvious attempt at putting off the climax. What does Collins do in the space between chapter one and the games? Plenty. She fills it with the false grandeur of the Capitol. She prepares Katniss while exposing the pomp and circumstance around these horrific gladiatorial games. She fills in the history behind it.
First, we go to the Capitol, which is an interesting journey in and of itself; it is so different from District 12 as to practically be a different world. We see Katniss’s “coming out.” We see the strategy behind the games—that of attracting sponsors—which creates another sort of tension, one that Katniss had never even thought of and is ill-suited for. We see their joke of a trainer in the form of Haymitch Abernathy, which puts Katniss and the boys’ tribute, Peeta Mellark, at a disadvantage.
Another example of long-term tension? The slow-building relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Collins wisely introduces us to Gale early on. She makes it clear that, under different circumstances, he would have been a natural boyfriend and eventual mate for Katniss. But then come the games, and Katniss is thrown in with Peeta. One of the first scenes with him post-lottery is Peeta crying because of his entry into the games. Add to the fact that Katniss may be forced to kill Peeta to keep herself alive, and it makes for a very inauspicious start to a budding romance.
And yet these two children are thrown in together under very trying circumstances. Sure enough, as we enter the games themselves, we see Katniss and Peeta drifting closer to one another . . . but that’s filled with tension and setbacks along the way. Katniss wonders whether she should be close to him at all given not just the games but her feelings for Gale. Peeta surely wonders similar things. Katniss begins to distrust him as the games approach, and only then is it revealed that she was fooling herself all along. She’d blinded herself to Peeta’s true feelings for her, and it isn’t until the games begin, when it may be too late, that she fully realizes this and tries to bridge the distance she’d place between them.
I’d like to return to the subject of variation in the landscape. We know there are hills and valleys in fiction. The danger that Donald Maass laid out in his book is well taken: in those valleys (the times of low tension) lies danger. We can slack off and write scenes that are, well, just plain boring. The way to combat this, however, is not to shy away from things that aren’t action-packed, but to make these lower tension (lower tension, mind you, not low tension) scenes contain elements from these longer-term threads.
Case in point: when Katniss is lamenting over Gale and her growing feelings for Peeta, it’s not nearly as high tension as her coming out where she was clothed in a dress of fire and paraded through the Capitol in a chariot. But it’s tension just the same, and it plays against the other, ongoing concerns—her worry over her family and Gale, the marketing necessary to compete in the games, their complete lack of proper training from Haymitch, and the impending games themselves. These lower-tension scenes give depth and variety to the high-tension scenes, so that by the time the novel is complete, the reader feels as though they’ve walked through something unique, something real, and something special. Something—dare we hope?—that the reader would like to pick up and read again.
There are all kinds of tension, and I would challenge you to pick up some of your favorite books and identify the ones in play. We’ve discussed action and argument. We’ve discussed sexual tension. We’ve touched on mystery, which can be as simple as wanting to know the full nature of something like the games or as complex as a full-blown whodunit mystery that Sherlock Holmes might be asked to solve. We even touched obliquely on the basic necessity of survival. It doesn’t really come into sharp focus until later in the novel, but Katniss is very much fighting for her life once the games begin, both because of the efforts of the other contestants, but also because of the controlled environment of the arena itself.
The arena, by the way, and the games, are so expertly constructed that they highlight all of James Dai’s three basic conflicts (internal, relational, and external) and five of Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch’s seven conflict types (character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. machine, character vs. self, and character vs. society).
There are plenty more types of conflict we haven’t touched on. There is tension found in our upbringing and in our relationships. Societal pressures, familial pressures, peer pressures. Religious and political pressures and pressure we put upon ourselves through our own expectations and moral codes. All of these can be used to create dramatic tension. What it takes from the author is a deep understanding of those things as they relate to the world at large and the characters that inhabit the story. This is why worldbuilding is so important. Even in urban fantasy there will be a system of beliefs and a history underlying it that can be leveraged to create tension between the characters. Worldbuilding and character building set the stage for all that follows, including (and especially) plot.
Now that we’ve looked at tension, let’s examine how it builds. Just as the novel itself has hills and valleys, so does each subplot. This makes sense, as the novel itself is really just a collection of those individual parts. What you’ll find is that each of the scenes will either advance a plot or set it back. Either of these outcomes will create tension. Why? In one case, the plot will advance, and like the slow, clinking sounds and lurching motion of a roller coaster heading up toward that first, big drop, the reader will feel closer to the eventual resolution; their anticipation, in other words, will rise. And in the other, the setback will make the reader feel farther away. They will feel more internal angst because the characters they care about now have a more difficult path before them.
Each scene should do one of these two things: advance a plot or set it back. It seems like such a simple rule, yet so many writers avoid doing just that. Why? Because writing tension-filled scenes is hard. As authors, we live those scenes with our characters, and the emotionally convenient thing for us to do is to avoid the stuff that causes them pain. Time and time again I’ve seen writers build to a scene that should be chock-full of tension, only to see them skip forward to the end of the scene, the aftermath.
I remember this being a difficult transition for me—the notion that it’s the very scenes I was avoiding that I needed to focus on and maximize, while minimizing or eliminating those low-tension scenes that were so easy (from an emotional perspective) to write.
Before I close, let’s put the basic premise of this article to the test. I’m claiming that tension on every page is the key to good fiction, and I’m holding up The Hunger Games as an example. So let’s take three random pages from the book and see if it holds true. The book is 378 pages long. I rolled three random numbers from random.org and got the following pages: 27, 274, and 312.
On page 27, Katniss is dealing with the aftermath of the lottery and her decision to step in and take Prim’s place. Katniss is relaying how, after her father’s death, her mother was supposed to get a job to support the family, but her mother didn’t. She shut down into a deep depression and couldn’t provide for her family. Katniss had lost not just one parent to the explosion that had killed her father, but two. And now Katniss has to step up and provide for her family as best she can. This is one of the “lower tension” scenes I was referring to above. It isn’t action, it’s exposition, and yet it’s brimming with tension, especially in light of the fact that Katniss will soon be leaving for the Capitol, making her wonder if Prim and her mother will be okay.
On page 274, Claudius Templesmith (the one who makes pronouncements to the contestants in the arena) has just made an announcement that there will be special packages placed at the Cornucopia (a golden horn where important things are placed to help some contestants while simultaneously putting others at a disadvantage). These contain something each contestant desperately needs. In Katniss’s case, she knows it’s medicine to heal Peeta’s infected leg. Peeta knows this as well, and he implores Katniss not to go. Katniss lies and tells him she won’t, but we all know, including Peeta, that she’s going to go anyway. Again, not an action sort of tension—it’s actually buildup for the meeting at the Cornucopia—but it’s one of the more tension-filled scenes in the entire novel.
On page 312, Katniss and Peeta are eating cold rice and stew that to them is like an absolute feast after living in the arena for days on end eating only what they could find and prepare themselves. They joke around, slopping food in their mouths to the imagined dismay of their hometown and Effie Trinket. But as soon as they’re done eating, the mood shifts. They step outside, ready to head for the final confrontation with Cato, one of the strong favorites in the contest.
These are just three examples, but I would contend that any page I chose would have produced the same results. Tension on every page. It’s a simple thing to say, a very difficult thing to pull off. The first key is to recognize this formula. Second, you have to craft a world in which tension can naturally spring. And finally, you have to construct characters with wants and needs that will naturally bring those tensions to a head, either within themselves, with others, or against opposing people or forces.
The flip side of this is to minimize those things that don’t have tension. This may not be something you can do on the first round of writing—at least, not if you’re new to the concept. In fact, I wouldn’t even recommend it. This sort of culling is more properly done in subsequent drafts. Look for scenes that don’t advance or set back the plot. Look for places where the story lags, and ask your readers to do the same. And then either cut them or recast them in such a way that they do contain tension.
You will eventually find, as with any skill, that it will come easier. You will start to intuitively weed out some scenes as unnecessary, and then you will start to formulate your world, characters, and plot to maximize these things. I rather suspect that Suzanne Collins spent a lot of time on how this world worked—the rules of the games and what they meant to the society, the background of the games and why they came into existence—before she seriously got into the writing of the tale. It all starts with recognizing the problem, practicing until it becomes internalized, and then employing it with greater and greater skill.
Bradley P. Beaulieu began writing his first fantasy novel in college, but in the way of these things, it was set aside as life intervened. As time went on, though, Brad realized that his love of writing and telling tales wasn’t going to just slink quietly into the night. The drive to write came back full force in the early 2000s, at which point Brad dedicated himself to the craft, writing several novels and learning under the guidance of writers like Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman, Tim Powers, Holly Black, Michael Swanwick, and Kij Johnson.
Brad and his novels have garnered many accolades and most anticipated lists, including Twelve Kings in Sharakhai being named to over twenty Best of the Year lists in 2015. He also earned two Hotties–the Debut of the Year and Best New Voice–on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, a Gemmell Morningstar Award nomination for both Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and The Winds of Khalakovo, and more.
Brad’s stories have appeared in various other publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat,” was voted a Notable Story of 2006 in the Million Writers Award.
Brad continues to work on his next projects, including The Song of the Shattered Sands, an Arabian Nights epic fantasy, and The Days of Dust and Ash, a forthcoming science-fantasy trilogy. He also helped to run the highly successful science fiction and fantasy podcast, Speculate. For more, please visit www.quillings.com.