Creating and maintaining tension below the surface


You’d think by now this would be obvious: the writer is the FIRST reader, but not the INTENDED reader.

Because writing is a split-brain activity, it is easy to forget that what bothers the writer may not bother the READER, by design.

And you don’t want to go to where things bother the reader.

Annoy, make uncomfortable, show up, irritate – all good words of what the writer should do to the reader – which is SHAKE THE READER UP.

Get under the reader’s skin. Make the reader think. Create a discombobulated feeling in the reader that can only be fixed by the reader changing.

All those are good – but bothering the reader means the writer did something wrong.

And this is where the split personality is required:

I have just written the final two scenes in a chapter.

They were hard to write. There is a lot going on sub rosa. By the end of the book, these two characters will loathe each other.

And right now they are thrown together in an unexpected way, with no warning to either.

But the rules of polite society apply, and they must be civil, even cordial, to each other for a period of time that may be up to two days long.

And one would very much like to get something the other has.

So the scenes are currently driving me a little batty

because the surface must be unruffled – at this point in the story there is no basis for which one person can truly dislike the other.

Which bring me back to the title of this post: Creating and maintaining tension BELOW THE SURFACE.

And the words I put on the graphic:

Books are written

for the READER

To remind myself that, when it’s all over, I have to do better than the street repair team in my previous township. I need the surface to look like the original street, not the repaired street.

A repaired street has a visible patch of asphalt or concrete – of a different color.

A repaired street patch may create a dip in the road as the subsoil settles.

A repaired street show where the damage was.

But a book can’t show where the choices were made

A novel must be seamless.

The scenes must flow.

The reader must be able to know a great deal of why the scene is happening now – as she reads it.

And the writer is not allowed (not by my standards) to stuff description and exposition into a scene just because there is space.

It is work to get it right – it would be much easier to just relax the standards and throw something the reader might need later into the present scene.

But here’s the rub: readers know. And when they run into chunks of exposition, they skip or skim.

And then they don’t find out what the writer was supposedly trying to tell them anyway.

I really, really hope I didn’t do that

I’ll find out when my first reader lets me know; I’ll find out when reviewers speak their minds.

I think I managed it.



7 thoughts on “Creating and maintaining tension below the surface

  1. acflory

    Yes! I find myself putting too much in, and then having to take it out again because really, it wasn’t what that particular scene needed anyway. The writing gurus say you shouldn’t edit as you go but I know myself too well now to be able to ‘let it go’. Because a story is built upon a million tiny building blocks, and they all have to be right.
    -hugs- You write beautifully. You got it right. 🙂


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The writing gurus are all wet. They would be appalled at the way I write: linearly, from the beginning, with nothing allowed very long that isn’t up to snuff – in my eyes.

      But it works for me, and that’s the only thing that matters: whatever gets words on the page consistently.

      Of course, the gurus don’t have damaged brains (?). I shall have to put out a ‘How to Write’ book when I’m finished – all full of my many different discoveries. There may be other people out there they will help.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. acflory

        Hah! I’m the same way, Alicia: ‘linearly, from the beginning, with nothing allowed very long that isn’t up to snuff – in my eyes.’
        My take is that the nuances matter. Sometimes a single word choice can completely change /my/ perception of something. And that in turn will change how I write the next bit. I’d far rather take out a big chunk of nice prose that doesn’t do the job than leave it and lose the effortless flow that readers need. That said, I don’t believe in feeding readers pre-gurgitated baby food either. It’s a delicate balance.


  2. marianallen

    Oh, I have no doubt you did it! So many times in PURGATORY, I knew how I wanted the scene to go and got irritated that it didn’t go that way, but recognized that it was going THE RIGHT WAY FOR THE STORY AND THE CHARACTERS, whether I liked it or not.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I trust you will like both the end to NETHERWORLD, and to whatever I end up calling the third volume. But endings must be earned.

      Thanks for your confidence, but I HAVE to keep questioning my abilities and my goals – can’t afford to get complacent in any way.

      Liked by 2 people


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