Turning Over Tension



I recently read an article about some advice Donald Maass gave in in his Writing a Blockbuster Novel workshop. He told his students to “cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages.” This caught my attention because both novels I’m working on include some of these things. Naturally, Maass’s students weren’t as thrilled either. Luckily, the author, Darcy Pattison, had some helpful advice to increase the tension in such quiet scenes if a writer was inclined to keep them. I aim to her support her. I put forth the opinion that such scenes (when done with thought) can be the most memorable. Here are three specific stories in which this holds true: A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Netflix’s House of Cards, and The Harry Potter Series.

Fans of the book series and show alike can agree that the essence of Westeros’s drama and political intrigue is not in the epic battles or larger-than-life environments. In fact, those traditional traits of epic fantasy (think Lord of the Rings-esc Battle of Pelanor fields or the Climb of Mount Doom) are hard to come by. The attention is placed on people mostly sitting down or strolling through the gardens, talking. For Maass, these tea-time (or wine-drinking) scenes are a red-flag in the first fifty pages, yet who can resist every time Cersei has a wine glass in her hand? Those who play the Game (Tyrion, Little Finger, Tywin, Varys, Margaery, perhaps even Sansa) do not brandish their swords in gallantry or deliver eloquent speeches to the masses (often). The spirit of Thrones is in the negotiations via Raven scroll, the plots and rumors shuffled behind closed doors, and the calm demeanor of a girl handling a spoiled boy-king. Truly, the Game is played with two people sitting across from each other, drinking wine, and just talking.

Similarly, House of Cards harbors the same virtues as Thrones when it comes to playing politics. I fondly call Cards the “Game of Thrones but in D.C.” However, Cards enjoys the flamboyance of the political drama via the Media. Think how many times the show uses news sources like CNN and Fox as means of forwarding the scandals and plots. Cards is a dialogue heavy story, something I think Maass may categorize as quiet. There’s one instance that really sticks out to me: the time when Zoey meets Frank in the museum. Frank sits in front of a painting of a boat with two rowers, each holding half an oar. He asks if she’s serious about being his voice in the Media. She says yes. He hands over the original draft of Walker’s Education Bill. He tells her to publish an article that will sabotage his own administration to his benefit. Frank tells her should she tip the boat over, he can only save one of them. This scene took a mere minute, but Kevin Spacey’s performance electrifies every whispered line. It’s such a simple setting: a museum, with a simple yet weighty decision for Zoey: to swim with the sharks of the Capitol, yes or no? Such is the nature of properly constructed quiet scenes.

Where Thrones and Cards wonderfully dump honey and sugar onto dialogue heavy scandals, Potter takes a simpler approach to the scenes that Maass cautions to be without tension or lack thereof. Despite the latter’s simplicity being a result of children being its target audience, don’t count Rowling out. Potter’s quirky method of getting students to Hogwarts makes it one of the most iconic and beloved parts of literature: the Hogwarts Express. Every reader from the Dursley-ist Muggle to those thirty-one-year-olds still looking for their letter would not refuse a ride on the train. However, Maass says times traveling from place to place should be avoided. Now imagine skipping the Big Three being introduced with Ron trying to turn Scabbers yellow and Hermione repairing Harry’s glasses, the verdant moors of Scotland sliding by the window of the train. Travel provides a period of stasis for the story. The world outside is moving, the destination is known, and for that fixed amount of time the reader is able to spend a private moment with the characters. It’s something relatable and, again, simple. Nearly everyone at some point in their life will ride in a car, train, or plane.

The lesson I’m trying to teach is to not be afraid to use the quiet scenes. I have, and the people who have read those parts of my manuscript say they work great. What you need to understand is the essence of these memorable scenes: attention to character, what conflict is developed further or resolved, and how this event will continue to push the plot along. Learn from these examples. Look for these potentially boring scenes in your favorite works and see how the author made you never question turning over tension in the kitchen, drinking tea, or on the train.




One Comment Add yours

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