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It’s Not the Cougar

Photobucket [1]Last month [2] I looked at how tension emerges on the page when apparently nothing is happening. The inverse of that is when high action hits with bullets whining, cars careening and explosions mushrooming.

You’d think that high action would be the most riveting stuff in any novel, but strangely it often is easy to skim. C’mon, be honest. You’ve skimmed some action, haven’t you?

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a day with Chi-Libris, a group of published authors of Christian fiction. Late in the day we tackled micro-tension. A participant offered a paragraph from a WIP in which a cougar carried a toddler across a stream (in its mouth, in case you were wondering), pursued by the story’s protagonist.

The passage was well written, visually clear—and not particularly scary. When I asked, “What do you think will happen next?” hardly anyone was stirred to speculate. I then asked, “How can we add tension?”

As I expected, most suggestions focused on making the cougar more menacing, raising the stakes (the toddler is a Senator’s child!), changing the protagonist’s actions, etc. No improvement. The outcome still didn’t matter to most.

Then came a suggestion that held the key to increasing tension: heighten the emotions of the point-of-view character. Even better, create conflicting emotions. Bingo. Suddenly the moment sprang to life. Both the interest level and uncertainty of the outcome spiraled up…

…except for a group of a male authors, who were mostly clustered in a back row. “But what if the cougar reared up on its hind legs?” “Cougars have vicious fangs, what if its lips curled back?” The men didn’t want to let go of the idea that tension comes from guns, or in this case claws.

Finally, I improvised a version of the passage that went something like this:

The cougar splashed across the stream, the toddler limp in its jaws. Jim splashed after it, snapping off a branch. No way was he backing down. Forget it. It was man against nature. And this time man was going to win.

Simple as that was, interest increased. Someone noticed that the hero’s determination was undercut by the words this time. Another participant wondered, “What happened last time?” Exactly. It’s the contrast between bravado and fear (both implied) that creates tension and makes the outcome uncertain…

…except for the guys in the back row. “But seriously, what if the cougar…” I shook my head in despair. “It’s not the cougar,” I said, “it’s the emotions.”

Guys. Ah-yee. What are you going to do?

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3] in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s also the author of several craft books for writers [4], including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Harlequeen [5]

About Donald Maass [6]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [7]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [8], The Fire in Fiction [9], Writing the Breakout Novel [10]and The Career Novelist [11].