• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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By The Time You Hear This Song He’ll Be Standing Right Here

Inevitability and surprise. You expect something to happen and it catches you off guard at the same time. The ball rolls toward the cup — then drops. The sun lowers in orange gradations — then sinks. Plip. One small detail returns when you least expect it: a letter, a necklace, a peach pit. Timing. Pacing. The gun is introduced in the first act. A stranger comes to town. A glass menagerie. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. How do create the high wire? How are suspense and tension created within a work?  The butterfly nears the net. The sound of sirens. A scoop of ice cream teeters over the edge of a cone. A child steps off a curb. Can you learn to thread your book so that people keep reading, so that even the most subtle moment pools with suspense. Will she say yes? Is that your last breath? What if I get in bed beside you?

How do you create tension?

55 Responses

  1. i pull into a trader joe’s parking lot.

  2. I think tension and suspense have to do with the distance between what the characters want and what the readers want. We want them NOT to go into that abandoned theater, that upstairs bedroom, their teacher’s office but THEY want to go. And we can’t stop them

    We want them to choose the nice boy but they want the bad boy. We want them to NOT put on the ring, but they desperately want to. It’s calling to them, tempting them. Don’t do it! Don’t put on the ring!

    We want them to look behind them. Look behind you! For the love of God he’s right behind you! But they are more interested in the moth on the wall.

    • I think we want them to go into the abandoned theater, but morality compels us to say otherwise. Doesn’t almost everyone who goes to a NASCAR race or a bullfight secretly hope for a seven-car pile-up or for the matador to get it? We also want it all to turn out well in the end, in spite of the impossibility of that happening. The tension is found less in what the character does or does not than it is the battle between our appetites and our ethics.

      • Interesting point. The space between the covers of a book make a safe battleground, too, where our perverse voyeurism won’t be too badly judged.

        I went to a bullfight in Spain and could barely conceal my desire for the bull to win. I’m not sure what I was expecting, just went along with the crowd and the night out. A few minutes in, I was wiping my tears over the blatant cruelty. Later that night, I was introduced to a matador. He was a celebrity. I wanted to put a fist in his gut.

      • I love the “battle between our appetites and our ethics” line. Makes it all so clear and works for my basic premise. But I guess that is the basic premise.

  3. Nice confluence, Betsy. Thank you. I had to teach this morning just as I found out about a death, and the tension was high. My duty to my students versus my sorrow…today was a day that pulled both ways. A high wire act in seven periods.

    Of course, I wrote about it. That’s what we do. “And I Can Hardly Speak, My Heart is Beating So” http://jessicalahey.com.

  4. I’m writing about stepmothers and step kids. Someone is always tripping over the curb. This isn’t my trouble … but of course there are so many other issues, who can keep track?

    • If it’s about step-families, tripping is the order of the day. Write on, dog lady.

    • Now THERE is a wellspring of tension: in our case, my son’s step-mother recently almost drove into him while he was pedaling down the road in the bike lane. Kinda difficult to explain those actions. Thankfully, he has ninja-like reflexes.

  5. I keep scaring myself.

  6. I always make the heroine an adorable bitch. Cheap, I know.

  7. Good post, because this is an important question.
    What works best for me is using the old adage: write what you see. And see it from different perspectives.
    To your point, I keep a box of blank index cards that get stained with the scribbles of specific scenarios: how a shadow falls across the face of an elderly person while they are talking; how the ears of a dog are the first thing to move in acknowledgement of the mailman coming up the stairs; the muscles tHat quiver around a woman’s eyes when she gets angry (lotsa practice with this one, lol) – all for fictional character insertion later, because the reality you experience, I think, is better than the things you can make up.

  8. Betsy: I love your posts. They challenge me, jolt me, amaze me, confound me. Just like good writing!

  9. Tension: promise something, then postpone delivery, dangling it in front of them (or at least hinting at its existence) all the while. A tease. There has to be a promise, direct or implied. If there’s no promise, then what is delivered is merely a surprise. And there has to be delivery, or tension will turn to frustration.

    I don’t know if that’s how it works universally (can we take a poll here?), I’m just working backwards in my own mind, remembering what tension is like for me, and how it comes into being. The trick is timing, knowing exactly when to deliver. It’s all very erotic, isn’t it?

  10. “Can you learn to thread your book so that people keep reading, so that even the most subtle moment pools with suspense.”

    Apparently not. As witnessed by the rejections I’m getting from editors. It seems that my moments are like that halibut photo from yesterday’s post: tasty and pretty, but sort of see-through.

    When I walk down that dark hallway with the Sunday night movie Karen Black music wafting along beside me, I turn around and go, “Okay, really? I am so not going in that room.” And then I delve into some quiet little backstory scene.

    Seriously, the second something offers itself up as a mystery I hurl it onto the therapist’s couch and ask it about its narcissistic mother.

    When it comes to tension, I’m a walking Excedrin tablet.

  11. Conflict.

  12. I love this, playing with my characters, trying to trip up my reader. I like to write it out, the obvious path, then whittle back, veer off, sometimes going on a cheap junky ride to nowhere, or sometimes threading a tiny needle and pulling through. Love this.

  13. Anything will do. Right before going off to sleep away camp, your character can start itching his head only to discover a family of nits hiding out behind his ears, a young girl finds out the mother she grew up loving actually kidnapped her the day she was born and now her real mom wants her back, a group of actors are told opening night that the most sought after agent in all of Hollywood is sitting center stage. Whatever. The key is to ordain a character with a desire and then put a boulder in front of him right before he sets out to achieve it. Or, if you can’t do that, just add a newborn to the pot. They have an uncanny ability to stir things up.

  14. I’ve been reading for 60 years and still find authors who pull me into the story so deeply that I catch the clues at the right time, and not a moment too soon. I love being astonished that way.

    I can only hope that I’ve acquired some of these techniques by osmosis or something, so I can get the timing right in my own stories.

  15. It’s like that old Hitchcock example. If a group of men are sitting at a table playing cards and suddenly a bomb goes off, that’s surprise.

    But if we know about the bomb and spend the whole scene wondering what will happen, that’s tension. And that’s what you want to go for.

    I’m not a suspense writer, but I firmly believe the reader always need a reason to turn the page, and so I dangle a carrot to keep the tension going.

  16. i go to work. that creates tension.

  17. Tension is the space between giving the characters you love everything they want and then stripping them bare. It’s the distance between giving the characters you detest their due, and then letting them have it all.

    Anything that makes the reader turn the page while hoping it turns out the way they want it to, despite evidence to the contrary.

  18. I don’t think much about building tension, and have little time to do it. There is that “To Be Continued”, but that doesn’t always work.

    My characters move along, and sometimes do things that turn out to be mistakes; other times, things happen fast and unexpectedly, like doing an ordinary task and stepping off into icy water. Then the knucklehead has to get out of this mess as he loses his ability to function. He tries A, then B, C doesn’t work, and now his ideas are getting squirrely, as he is losing his strength. He considers D, and the reader knows that D will be fatal, the knucklehead is pretty happy with it.

  19. I write the mood first, in time with the scenery, then I have to go back and put in the secret strings to tug and twist things. Otherwise it’s a lot of static sorrow and staring at beautiful vistas, feeling empty. At least with this novel, that’s how it’s been.

  20. Oooh,…this is a good one! I think of tension in dialogue. Or telling actions. Things that peel back the layers of the character, confirming in unique ways, surprising us in the ordinary. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eyes–talk about tension. Who needs a Psycho scene with a group of eight-year-old girls doing their damage?

  21. I stop and stare at smokers in the street, then start ranting in a low voice about filthy fucking smokers obviously having a death wish, and that it’s only right that someone should oblige them.
    Or sometimes, just the staring part.
    Either way, lots of tension.
    Or I make comments on blog posts that answer the question that was asked, but out of context.
    Less tension, but it still seems to piss some people off, and then I feel bad about it, and that creates tension in me.
    Unless they’re people that type LOL. Then I’m glad I did it.

  22. i hope I have.

    Carrots and sticks, baits and switch, motivations and excuses, and people doing what they really,really don’t want to do.

  23. Whenever I want to create tension, I get married. Then you could get in bed beside me and we’d see just how much tension we could generate.

  24. Unexpected but logical. I like surprises that fit the personality of the character, clues not as obvious as holding backwards words to a mirror, but that the reader can fill in and anticipate, only to be hit with a bigger hammer at the next plot twist until finally waiting for the sledge to come out. Easier said than done and often quite messy as well.

  25. I call my mother

  26. Ted hung up, his eyes wide. That was close. As he started to peel the white wax paper off his bagel, the phone rang again. He reached into the wrapper for the squishy piece of bread and took a bite. After the standard five rings that it took for voicemail to answer, the room went quiet again. Chewing, he turned on his computer, the monitor casting a blue glow across his face as glanced every few moments at the red, plastic dot to see if it had started blinking yet. It hadn’t. He picked up the receiver to check the dial tone again and the line was quiet.


    He jumped at hearing a voice on the other end. His timing had been such that he had picked up the phone just as a call was coming in, so that it had not even had a chance to ring. The voice spoke again.

    “Hello? Is someone there?”

    “It’s me again, ma’am.”



    There was more silence.

    “You know, I don’t understand how I could have called you twice now. I am only hitting redial and all the other times I’ve hit it, I’ve reached the Department of Transportation line.”

    “How do you know?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “How do you know that you keep getting the Department of Transportation?”

    “Because I keep getting the automated voice message.”

    “And is it broken?”

    “Is what broken?”

    “The automated voice message.”

    “Why do you ask?”

    “Because it sounds like you keep calling it, over and over again, so I thought it must be broken or something.”

    “Well, it won’t beep to let me leave a message. I listen to that whole damned recording and then I wait for the beep and there isn’t one, so I’m calling it over and over again until someone picks up. Besides, every time I leave a message, nothing happens. I’ve been leaving messages for almost a year now and no good has come of it.”

    “A year?”

    “Yes. There’s this enormous pothole outside my house and I want someone to come fix it.”

    Now he recognized the voice and he remembered all of it: Colette Bertrand of 264 Dipple Street, calling about a pothole the size of a well-fed beaver, which she had to drive through every time she left home and every time she came back again; it was awful, jarring her entire car, making it sound as if it might split right in half, shaking her body down to its core and dislodging memories of all the insulting things she had ever experienced in her 84 years; there were the boys pulling on her ponytail, or the time she tripped on an errant tree root while running top speed to the playground, or the feeling of sitting on some stranger’s cold pee, dribbled on the seat in a public restroom, or when she would bite the inside of her cheek, while chewing a perfectly seared, medium-rare steak, or that day she got doused from head to toe in icy, black puddle water from a speeding bus– to name a few examples.

    “Good luck with that. You know how slow the government is.”

    “Well, they need to come fix it. It’s dangerous.”

  27. My dear Ms. Lerner, the title of your post reminded me of a time not so long when someone handed me a pamphlet, which began: “By the time you finish reading this, another person will have died from –”

    So I stopped reading right there. I’d be damned if I was going to be responsible for killing someone. Regarding this business of how best to catch the reader off-guard, I, as coincidence would have it, just addressed this subject as well:

    The Best Way To End Your Story: Unpredictably

  28. Open the facebook page of the woman who killed my former husband to see she just enjoyed a Caribbean cruise with her family.
    My family––on the other hand––are grieving, reading police reports, and scraping together money for all things funeral.
    BTW––judging by her pictures, she is having too much fun partying to bother with privacy settings.

    Create TENSION in me, yes. Now in my writing…

    • Luv, what is UP with that? Don’t want to be intrusive, but that sounds too incredible to let pass unremarked-on.

      • Thank you Tulasi-Priya. My daughter’s father, my former husband– friend was killed in November. The woman responsible was found to be innocent and will not face charges or even get a ticket (she hit him with her SUV while he, 6’2″ white-skinned, crossed the street on foot). I hear the words from folks that while not charged she will have to live with this the rest of her life, and that she is surely suffering.
        And. Then. I. Can’t stop myself and open her fb page and can’t believe what I am seeing. I checked it out a number of times, scrutinizing every word and picture to see if it was really true. Yes, she was on a cruise.
        I can only pray that God lifted him up right away hours before his body died.

  29. By raising a question or the suggestion of one and then revealing the answer later. Is this a trick question?

  30. You’ve got to have a good story to tell and a good story by definition involves tension- as in, what’s gonna happen next, as in I gotta turn the page and keep reading, as in I can’t put this book down or pick up again soon enough because I need to know what happens to him, her them, it. The carrots and all will find their places in revisions and edits. You gotta have the story to tell or else any “tension” created comes off as gratuitous or worse, manipulative.

  31. […] Lerner advises how to create dramatic tension, while Ashley Clark gives tips on making your readers giggle. Leigh Michaels weighs in with 5 […]

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