Case Studies For Writers

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Mar 11, 2020

Writing Tension in Quiet Scenes

By Jackie Mead.

Writers spend a lot of time thinking about what excites readers. But is your scene exciting to write? No? Sounds like it needs more tension.
Tension can be summed up in one word: anticipation. Ever watched your two favorite characters from a TV show have a conversation that makes you want to scream at the screen? Maybe they are in love but too afraid to admit it. Or they hate each other due to a misunderstanding. Or one of them is trying to hide something from the other. That interaction, even if it’s only small talk, is filled with tension. You, the audience, are anticipating that something big (good or bad) might happen at any moment. 

There are many ways to add tension to a story. Thanet Writers identifies four ways to add tension: interactions between characters, having a task to complete (i.e. “the ticking clock”), surprise twists, and a central mystery.
But how do you create tension in a scene that doesn’t have that much going on? 
Easy. You add anticipation. 
Some examples of tension: 
1.      The Audience Knows Something the Characters Don’t
This technique is especially useful in historical fiction. In Titanic, when Rose tells Jack, “When the ship docks, I’m getting off with you,” it’s a line loaded with tension. The audience knows that the ship is never going to reach New York. In fact, the audience knows that a whole bunch of people are about to die, and Jack might be one of them. Knowing this happy couple will soon be doomed adds tension to the quiet scene. 

Another example of this is Game of Thrones, which follows many different characters and is able to give the audience a lot of information the characters aren’t privy to. In the season four finale, Brienne of Tarth is on her way to the Erie as part of her quest to find Arya Stark. On the road, she encounters a girl practicing sword fighting on a rock. The audience knows it’s Arya—but she doesn’t. Their exchanging of pleasantries feels excruciating because it’s only a matter of time before Brienne realizes who she’s talking to. It’s a quiet scene, but exploding with tension. 

2.      A Character Knows More than they’re Letting On
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid accidentally lets it slip that whatever is going on in the third-floor corridor is between Albus Dumbledore and Nicholas Flammel. This lets the audience know that Hagrid not only knows what’s going on, but he’s also choosing not to tell Harry. But…why? Hagrid is such a nice guy and seems to be willing to tell Harry everything else he wants to know. So why is he holding back on this? 

Another example is Madame Giry in The Phantom of the Opera musical. In her first scene, she is delivering “a message from the opera ghost,” that the new theater owners immediately disregard. This creates tension in two ways: the audience is waiting for the phantom to take revenge on the ignorant owners, and waiting to learn how Madame Giry became so knowledge. Although she is absent in the show’s action sequences, her scenes with the owners are filled with tension.
The important thing to remember about tension is that it’s anticipation. And that anticipation comes from what happens outside that scene. Brienne discovering Arya would not have so much tension if she hadn’t spent the entire season searching for her. Hagrid letting his knowledge slip seems out of character with his honest nature.  
But first and foremost: tension is not something happening. Tension is anticipating that something will happen. Does it happen? Maybe. That’s up to you. 
If you do it right, quiet scenes will be infinitely more fun to read it and write. After all, what’s more fun than torturing the reader with crucial information that the characters don’t know, or revealing that a character knows the truth but isn’t talking? It’s one of the simple joys of being a writer. 

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About the Author: Jackie Mead
Jackie Mead is a museum educator by day and a writer by night. Her articles have been published by Cracked, Listverse, and History Magazine. She is currently querying her first novel. You can follow her reading adventures here: