I’m watching the first season of The Walking Dead and that scene where they have to walk through the zombies – if you don’t know what I mean, check out Guts – is really tense. I don’t think it’s because they are covered in guts and walking with the undead, I think it’s because of all the build up. You don’t need zombies to do that.
It’s that moment when you are watching or reading and you suddenly think maybe everything isn’t going to work out okay. That scene that keeps your attention no matter how gross it might be, because you have to experience the moment when everything goes horribly wrong – you know it will. You hope your favorite characters survive, but you want to witness their destruction if it happens.
It’s not easy even with life or death
In The Walking Dead, creating tension might look easy. Life and death is on the line in every scene. The challenge for the writers it to keep the tension real. It would be very easy to slip into farce. Horror is so close to the line that one too many gory scenes can turn the viewers from cringing behind their fingers as they hold their breath in anticipation to gasping for breath as they roll around on the floor laughing.
How does it work?
I don’t claim to get it right every time, even after several re-writes, but I think the tension isn’t created in the tense scene. I think it’s created long before the reader gets there. Just like great bread starts with yeast, The tension on page 250 is started on page 1 with the right ingredients.
Making people care about the characters is the first ingredient. The characters people care about are human. They make mistakes, they have blind spots, they have secrets and they want things. The tension works because we want the character to succeed – either they get what they want, or they get what they need.
Ingredient number two is the build up. The character needs to pay a price for getting what they want. Is it to escape a city full of zombies? Will they risk their own humanity for a chance to make it out of the city?
In less dire circumstances, will a character give up what’s important to their identity to grasp what they have been striving for all their lives? Will the romantic heroine let go of her independence to fall in love? Will the detective walk into a room full of armed criminals to get that final clue so they can get justice?
As a writer I search for ways to build tension for the final scene starting on page one. As a reader, I don’t want to see that process, I want to feel it.
The question of the day
As a reader, what book did you love for the tension? That scene that had you reading fast and turning pages at 3 am.