Revising Your Manuscript: Increasing Tension

As I was headed to the post office late Monday morning in the pouring rain, I couldn’t help but notice half a dozen police cars and twice as many police officers in an otherwise empty parking lot in front of Rite Aid. Yellow police line tape cordoned off both the parking lot and the building, which is situated uncomfortably close to my house. Uncomfortably, because of what had happened there to necessitate the police presence.

I got to the post office in East Lansing and called my husband for a phone number I’d forgotten to write down and mentioned the strange situation at the Rite Aid. As we do nowadays, he proceeded to look up what information could be gleaned from online sources. Very little, as it turns out. A pharmacist, a kind man who had filled prescriptions for our family, had been shot in the face 30 or 40 minutes earlier and died. The shooter fled on foot into a residence on a nearby street, a street we used to use daily when our son was younger as we took him to daycare. There the shooter had apparently shot someone else just fifteen minutes later. Several schools were on lockdown. But my son’s school, closer in distance to the now supposed location of the shooter then the other schools listed, was not on the list. A call to the school went unanswered.

I finished my business at the post office, ran through the downpour to my car, and headed for his school. Thankfully when I got up to the front door, the building was locked. The principal let me in, I quickly made sure they knew what was going on, and then I left.

In the tense hours that followed, news was sketchy. “Isn’t this what Twitter is for?” I wondered in frustration as my husband and I scanned every news site, every feed we could think of, reloaded articles every two minutes to see if anything had been added. Robocalls from the police department and the school came ten to twenty minutes after events had already been reported on the Internet. We got the call that the school lockdown had been lifted, but still could find no indication that the police were positive that the suspect was in the residence that they had surrounded with cops from three cities, S.W.A.T., a U.S. Marshall, K9 units, and armored vehicles.

I second guessed myself for leaving my son at school. Why didn’t I ask if he could come home with me? What if he’s in danger? With every half hour that passed by with still no updates, anxiety mounted within me. A headache came on. I erupted in tears a few times (folks, I rarely cry). I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was steadily losing it.

Let’s pause this story here and take a look at the facts.

By the time I drove by the Rite Aid and saw the tape and the cops and the cruisers, everything except the apprehension of the suspect had already taken place. Two men were already tragically dead. The shooter was already barricaded in the location of the second shooting and surrounded by law enforcement. The only thing yet to be decided was whether he would give himself up, go out in a hail of bullets, or shoot himself. He was contained.

But I didn’t know that. And my baby was not home with me.

Tension–severe and almost unbearable tension–can happen even when nothing is actually happening. Tension stems from uncertainty–not knowing someone’s true identity, not being able to predict what someone will do next, not understanding why something is happening, not knowing if a loved one is safe, not knowing when something will end, not knowing how someone will react…not knowing the end of the story. In our writing, tension is as much about what is not apparent to a character as an immediate physical threat to a character. Stories with absolutely no big action can have more tension than the most explosive big-budget Hollywood shoot-em-up ever made. Yes, there’s Speed, but there’s also Phonebooth.

Inside the Rite Aid, there was a brief moment of tension. An argument perhaps, the sight of a gun. But when that poor pharmacist died, the tension for him ended.

Outside the Rite Aid, every parent in two cities was terrified and anxious and even hysterical for over three hours. Each child in those locked down schools was wondering why their teachers were so tense and why they had a Code Yellow. People at work or at home within a five mile radius of all the action, including the campus of Michigan State University, were told to “secure in place,” stay inside, lock the doors. For tens of thousands of people outside, though they were not directly involved in any of the tragic events of the day, the tension worsened with every moment that passed with no information and no resolution.

Tension kept my husband and I reloading scant articles online. Tension keeps a reader turning the pages. And if tension stems from uncertainty, as writers we need to keep readers in suspense as long as possible.

It can be uncomfortable to write like that. We naturally desire resolution. Even a song that ends on an unresolved chord can drive us nuts. But in order to keep a reader engaged, we need to resist the desire to explain. Tension is in the pauses, the silences, the moments before the Moment. Have you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls? That entire book ends on an unresolved chord! And it’s the ending that makes the rest of the book worth reading at all.

Take a look at your work in progress, scene by scene. Do you allow tension to hang heavy in the air? Or do you resolve problems as quickly as possible? Is your story lacking tension of any kind? How could you add tension? How can you increase the uncertainty of a situation? Raise the stakes? Make the consequences more dire? Give the character (and the reader) less information? End a scene sooner? Pay special attention to the ends of your chapters and try to end each one with an unresolved chord. Compel the reader on to the next chapter by leaving them unsatisfied in this one.

That’s what makes a thriller a page-turner. It’s not the action itself. It’s the uncertainty. And you can use that to your advantage even in a quiet book.

Back to Rite Aid. When my husband left the house to pick up our son from school, word filtered through that the shooter had given himself up. He was in custody and the threat had ended. I texted my husband to let him know, to ease his anxiety and break the tension. It took me the rest of the evening to truly recover from the day. And in the light of the next morning, the big question became one of motivation.

As I said, this story is still developing. Here is a good article about the first victim and here is one about the second, men who had dreams and families and were made in the image of God, cut down in the prime of life. Why? We don’t know. And that is the subject of my next post on revising your manuscript…

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