I’m on the finishing stretch of the first draft of my new novel, a spot in the narrative that involves some wrenching, emotional scenes. In many ways, what I’m attempting to do with this story hews to the three-act model (foundation, conflict, resolution). But the moves aren’t seamless; the conflict first occurs in the first few pages, the pieces of the foundation come in throughout the story, and the resolution is akin to a series of right hands across the bridge of the nose.

That’s where tension comes in. Tension is difficult to write well. It’s counterintuitive; the moment the storyline gets hottest is the moment that the author must cool off his prose. If you, as the writer, have made readers care about the characters, you need not interfere with that by over-writing the scene.

Under normal circumstances, I’m a pretty restrained writer. Even so, tension-filled scenes challenge me to ratchet things back even more. I spend a lot of time on them in the first draft, and I’ll spend a lot more in subsequent runs at the manuscript.

Here’s a brief stretch from my current work that I think illustrates the heightening power of restraint in a conflict-laden scene:

Dad hung his head. The words, when they came, had nothing behind them, and they dissipated into the space between us.

“I know.”

Here we have something delivered in the first person. It would be all too easy to have the POV character render a lot of judgment here, to be overwrought in describing the conflict with the father: “Dad hung his head, because he knew what I said was true. When he finally spoke, it was in a whisper. ‘I know.’ “

This takes us back to ground we’ve covered before: What you don’t write is as important as what you do. You don’t need to draw readers’ conclusions for them. Contrast the scene-setting of the excerpt (“Dad hung his head”) with the exposition in the italicized bit above (“… because he knew what I said was true”). The first gives the reader a visual and plenty of room for interpretation; the second takes a bit of the story away. It’s a small slice, yes, but writers who steal from readers tend not to be one-time thieves. Over the course of a book, the small cuts add up to a big wound.

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