Tension-Building Tips, Rowling Style: A Guest Post by Becca Puglisi

Today I am pleased to let Becca Puglisi take the reigns for a while and tell you a little something about tension in your writing. If you’ve seen this post before, that’s fine. It has appeared on The Bookshelf Muse before, the site where Becca and Angela Ackerman birthed the idea of The Emotion Thesaurus. If you haven’t heard of this wonderful writing tool, I highly suggest you visit their site and take a look at all the wonderful entries they have in their other Thesauruses (Thesauri?). I have a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus and I’ve turned to it many times since I started revisions on The Changeling (unofficial title of NaNo novel).
Take it away, Becca!

Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea of tension, and how to best utilize it when writing. I loosely define tension as the emotion that results from conflict within a story. You want your reader to feel that tension, that uneasy, slightly stressed-out sensation from knowing that the character you’ve come to love is in for a world of hurt. But how to do it? I mean, it’s hard enough for me to accomplish throughout a single novel. Yet somehow, Rowling managed to keep us turning pages through a 7-book series. I know there were long narrative stretches, backstory, and other potentially skippable parts. How in Diagon Alley did she do it? To find out, I re-read book 5 and noticed some really great tension-building techniques that we all should be applying.
1. Add excitement/conflict to potentially boring scenes. Take the scene at the dinner table when Sirius tells Harry what’s been going on in the wizarding world while Harry was stuck at the Dursleys. Dinner table + backstory should = boring. But it doesn’t, because a couple of tension-building subplots are threaded through it: a) Harry and Sirius are both angry at Dumbledore and the reader doesn’t know why, and b) information is deliberately being kept from Harry–information that directly effects him and he should have access to. Tension comes in the form of information that the reader and character don’t have and strong character emotion because of it.
2. Make the setting interesting. Even though this scene happens at a dinner table, the kitchen in question is located in a grimy, grungy, nasty dark wizard’s house that’s occupied by evil creatures and a hostile house elf. Knowing that anything crazy could happen makes the scene more appealing. Granted, every scene can’t occur in a Grimmauld Place, but for situations like these, see what you can do to add interest, humor, fear, or uniqueness to the setting.
3. Make sure that other things are going on. While they’re sitting around talking, Tonks is transforming her nose into various shapes for entertainment purposes. Peripheral humor is still funny and always welcome to the reader. Also, Ginny is rolling butterbeer corks on the floor for Crookshanks. This bit isn’t critical to the overall plot, but it adds some action to a scene where there’s not a whole lot happening.
4. Delay exciting/important events. In my copy of book 5, Harry learns about his disciplinary hearing on page 33. The actual hearing doesn’t happen for one hundred pages. By delaying that important event, the tension stretches out, and the reader continues reading because they can’t put the book down until they find out whether or not he’s going to be expelled.
5. Never give the hero a break. In the first quarter of the book, very few good things happen to Harry. During this time, he
• is stuck at the Dursleys
• has little or no word from his friends
• is threatened with expulsion for using underage magic
• is being blown off by Dumbledore
• isn’t made a prefect
• sees thestrals along with Hogwart’s resident nutter
• discovers that Hagrid is missing
• has an embarrassing encounter with Cho
• is considered a freak, liar, and attention-seeker by his peers
• endures two week-long, literally torturous detentions with Umbridge
• misses keeper tryouts, and
• pisses off Sirius
During all this time, only two really positive things happen (leaving the Dursleys/reuniting with friends and being acquitted at his hearing). Otherwise, it is literally obstacle after obstacle for poor Harry. Sucks for him, but all that negativity serves to make the reader more sympathetic. We want him to succeed. And when he does, we’re completely impressed because he overcame such opposition. If the path to success were easy, he wouldn’t be a hero.
So keep these tips in mind when writing. By studying a master, maybe we, too, can keep readers hooked for hundreds of pages.
Thanks for stopping by Becca!
But wait! There’s more where that came from! Becca and Angela have both agreed to give away a PDF copy of The Emotion Thesauraus to one lucky reader! Wahoo!
There’s more still! In celebration of completing my first draft of The Gifted, I’m giving away some great stuff too! In addition to The Emotion Thesaurus, another lucky reader will get a hardcover copy of Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi AND three lucky readers will get a $10 Amazon Giftcard! WHOA!! FIVE people are going to win something! Just enter through the Rafflecopter below and in one week (Aug 2nd) I’ll reveal the winners!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About Katie Doyle

Katie Doyle is an avid reader, writer of NA and Adult fiction, a mom to two tornadoes that resemble an eight and six year old, and pet to a tuxedo cat named Oz and a German Shepherd/Boxer rescue named Charlie. If she's not reading, writing, or getting Oz out of a tree, she's screaming at characters on TV and trying not to curse around her kids.
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20 Responses to Tension-Building Tips, Rowling Style: A Guest Post by Becca Puglisi

  1. Great advice! Usually if I'm stressed out writing it, I know I'm doing my job 🙂

  2. DB Graves says:

    Definitely bookmarking this post for reference! Thank you.

  3. Fantastic. Sometimes hard to do when you fall in love with your characters but absolutely true.

  4. Great post today. This has got my wheels turning and I think I've got some more editing to do 🙂

  5. Awesome post. Thank you.

  6. Awesome post! Loved it!

  7. Amy McBay says:

    I adore that book. I turn to this book for every little emotion in my WIP! Awesome post! Thanks!

  8. Great post and so true about delayed resolution, so readers can keep reading.

  9. @Heather Murphy Heather, that's a really good indicator. I hadn't thought of that, but it's totally true!

  10. BellaVida, That was a tough lesson for me to learn, but to be honest, once I realized how important it is to torture my characters, it came frighteningly easy to me, lol.Thanks for all of the kind words, everyone. It's always nice to see new faces!

  11. Great advice as always. I know I've read this before, but I can always use a refresher when it comes to tension. :)Ange

  12. Fantastic advice! I needed to read this tonight. 🙂 Thank you!

  13. Silvia says:

    Interesting breakdown of that HP scene. Thanks for the advice!

  14. Lexa Cain says:

    Becca – what a great post! I try to use all those things to create tension in my writing, particularly setting, which I consider "atmosphere." Too bad so many agents/publishers always want you to increase the pace and cut anything that doesn't propel the plot forward. They miss the world-building and the essence of the novels.

  15. This is great! So timely for where I'm at in my WIP. Thanks for sharing these awesome tips (and anything to do with HP will speak to me even louder 😉

  16. Awesome post, thanks!

  17. kittyb78 says:

    Some interesting points Becca. :)Nice Layout Kathleen. 🙂

  18. All very true – though I think OoTP is probably the worst of the Potter books! The first 100 pages draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagged terribly. 😀 Usually, Rowling is excellent at creating tension though!

  19. Paul Carroll says:

    Even though book 5 was my least favourite (moody Harry is moody), I'm glad to see SOMETHING good could come out of it! 🙂

  20. C McKane says:

    I really could have used some tension pointers last NaNoWriMo but since my story isn't finished I can try them out?

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