Writing Tips & Tools

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lesson 23: Low Tension - Part 1

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section TWO: Low Tension: Part 1.
In tonight's lesson, we're going to look at Low Tension part 1, subtitled The Problem with Tea!

Donald Maass, in his workshop on this book teaches authors to cut scenes set in the kitchen or living room or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in the novel's first fifty pages.

Wonder of wonders! Hardly anyone wants to cut such material. Best selling author Jennifer Cruise even tacked him down at a writers retreat in Kentucky to debate the point about kitchens. She argued without kitchens, how can you tell a family story?

These kind of novels invite you to skim...and most people do! The reason is that in careless hands, such scenes lack tension. They do not add new information. They do not subtract allies , deepen conflict, or open new dimensions of character.

Typically scenes like these are to relax the tension. They do not raise questions or make use tense or worried. No wonder they don't hold people's attention!

Put your tension mete on its most sensitive setting. When your fingers try to type any scene set in a kitchen, living room, or car, I hope your tension meter sinks into the red zone and sets off a screaming alarm in your brain....Low tension alert!

Step 1: Find a scene that involves your hero taking a shower or bath, drinking tea or coffee, smoking a cigarette or reviewing prior action.

Step 2: Cut the scene

Step 3: If you cannot cut the scene, add tension.

Step 4: Find a scene set in a kitchen, living room, office, or in a car that your hero is driving from one place to another.

Step 5: Cut the scene.

Step 6: If you cannot cut the scene, add tension.

Note: The above exercise usually provokes anxiety in workshop participants. The fact is, people usually jump over such pointless review. Another trap is telling us how your hero reached a decision. Why bother? Instead, show us what happens as a result.

Follow-up: Find ten more low-tension scenes to cut or juice up with more tension.

Conclusion: Ninety-nine percent of scenes involving the above categories are by nature inactive. They are usually filler. You think you need them...but probably you don't!


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