You’ve probably heard that a scene in a novel needs to have plenty of tension to be effective, and that the tension should build until near the end. Does that mean that each scene needs to be more fraught with action and obvious danger than the last? You certainly could write that way, but it’s not compulsory. Especially if earlier scenes can give tension to later ones through context.
I’ll give you a writing example shortly, but first here’s an audio one. Listen to the following C major chord, which I’ve played four times to really get it into your mind:
It’s not very interesting on its own, but listen out for it when I insert it into this piece (it appears about 2 seconds in, and again at around 8 seconds):
How different did it feel with the other chords supporting it? (I also added an A in the bass to turn it into an Amin7 chord the second time, but I’m leading you into the long grass now. Music theory lesson over.) Context is everything!
Now for the writing example. I’ve written another short scene, and I’d like you to think about how tense it makes you feel.
For a time he stood on the ship’s deck and watched the waves. Other passengers walked by occasionally, usually heading in the direction of the giftshop or the bar. Each time he stared after them, and his hand drifted to his pocket.
A child ran past, laughing, her face sticky with melted chocolate. A man and a woman hurried after her, their good-natured calls betraying a hint of worry. He finally took the red stone out as they disappeared through a door, and ran a finger over its jagged edge. He gazed behind him and then in front; both shores were lost from sight.
He tossed the rock up and caught it a couple of times. How easy would it be to slip? It could just disappear overboard, to be smoothed and whittled down to sand. How high would he need to throw it to cause such an accident?
Gravity would not make the decision today. He drew his arm back, and with a flick of his wrist sent the stone spinning out over the water. It bounced once, twice, three times, and then it was gone. The ship continued to carry him forwards, and the sun continued to shine, just as it would the next day. He went back to watching the waves.
A man’s on a boat and he throws a stone into the sea. So what? If this was a real book, the other scenes would have told you already. Imagine you’ve read about the protagonist’s quest to retrieve the stone. It contains the soul of a powerful demon, who was trapped to stop the apocalypse. They can only be freed with a ritual, which their followers are quite keen to perform. They’re waiting for the protagonist on the far shore, and they’re holding his family hostage.
Suddenly the scene’s not about a boat trip. It’s about a desperate man caught pretty literally between the devil and the deep blue sea. It would have been possible to have him storming around the boat and wailing about his choice, but sometimes it’s more effective to understate events and allow the hard work you’ve already done to do the talking.
Do you try to link your scenes up to create tension together? Get in touch and let me know!