Writers On Writing / Page-turning tension, with Pamela Cook

“Too much information kills tension. But showing – through dialogue, active sentences, strong word choice and carefully chosen visceral reactions – pulls the reader into the story and makes them an active participant rather than a bored onlooker.”

Writers on Writing Pamela Cook

What is your best tip for those struggling to ‘turn up the tension’ in their writing?

Hold back.

Let go of the need to tell the reader everything up front. Too much information kills tension. Give the reader what they need for clarity and to keep the narrative flowing but hold back key pieces of information and use them as hooks to keep the reader engaged and wanting to read on.

What are the biggest mistakes when it comes to developing tension? 

Following on from question number one, revealing too much too soon is a big one. Giving too much backstory falls into this category – a lot of new writers feel they need to set the stage for readers by telling them everything that’s happened to the character up until the starting point of the story. Much better to start in media res, in the middle of the action and drop breadcrumbs of backstory through the narrative at salient points.

Too much telling (rather than showing) is another good way to kill tension. Telling makes for a lazy reader but showing – through dialogue, active sentences, strong word choice and carefully chosen visceral reactions – pulls the reader into the story and makes them an active participant rather than a bored onlooker.

What is your favourite way to communicate tension in your writing?

A well-considered combination of body language and dialogue can go a long way towards developing tension. Keep dialogue short and sharp and remember what’s not said is often as important – or more so– as what is said. Contrasting body language and dialogue can be so effective – a character says one thing, but her actions clearly show she really thinks or feels something else. Any time there is a gap between what a character thinks and says tension is created, and the reader subconsciously wonders what’s happening and turns the page to find out more.

Developing the art of microtension is key to really drawing a reader into the story and is something I’ll be talking about in depth in the course

What are some books you’ve loved with great narrative tension?

There are so many books I’ve felt this way about myself but here are my top three…

Rebeccca by Daphne Du Maurier – who can forget the increasingly suffocating setting of Manderley, the menacing presence of Mrs Danvers and the edgy anxiety of the current Mrs de Winter?

State of Wonder by Anne Patchett – the way the protagonist’s understanding of the situation gradually unfolds along with the reader’s and the sense of danger lurking in the lushness of the Amazonian jungle had me on the edge of my seat.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a cross genre mystery with an abandoned child as the naïve protagonist, a breath-taking setting and a who-dunnit plot line. If you’re on the NYT best-seller list for over two years you’re doing something right.

I’ll be talking about these books and looking at techniques to have your readers turning the page during the Turn Up The Tension online course. I hope you can join me.

Pamela Cook is a city girl with a country lifestyle – and too many horses. Her rural fiction novels feature complex women, tangled family relationships, and a sprinkling of romance. Her first novel, Blackwattle Lake, was published in 2012 after being selected for the Queensland Writer’s Centre/Hachette Manuscript Development Program. She is the co-host of the exciting new podcast Writes4Women. 

Join Pamela Cook for Online: Turn Up the Tension, starting Wednesday 19 November, online. Enrol here >>

Turn up the Tension with Pamela Cook writing nsw course

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