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(photo courtesy of Emily Roesly at morguefile.com)
Years, ago I read this concept from author Robert Newton Peck, “Stay in the phone booth* with the gorilla.”** Basically what it means is if you are in the midst of action, especially dangerous action, you shouldn’t have flashbacks or time for introspection. Those things pull the reader out of the action, and remind them that what they’re reading is not real. And we want the story to feel as real as we can possibly make it. Flashbacks and introspection are great for when the character isn’t dangling over the edge of the cliff.
Recently I saw a different form of this in someone else’s story. The monster is coming, bad things are happening, and everyone is going to die unless the heroine can overcome the monster. Then the action was put on hold while the heroine takes time to say good-bye to four different people. What? Wait! I thought the monster attack was imminent. Therefore, the monster would arrive and crush everyone and the story’d be over. I suggested to the writer that those good-byes shouldn’t happen in a safe bubble. In a movie we'd be seeing and hearing what is going on around the heroine as she has these conversations. We’d know how far away the monster was and would see and hear him getting closer. But that action wasn’t written in, so I as a reader didn’t experience it. There weren’t sensory details outside of these five people. I didn’t feel the danger. The tension was diminished. Then, once the heroine’s good-byes are done, the action picks up again. Almost like, oh yeah, the monster.
Sometimes less is more. Isn’t it more poignant when the reader knows the hero loves the girl, but doesn’t get to say so as he rushes off to his possible death? I like how Kelly Barnhill says it, “I tell my students: Tension=the raft is headed for the falls and the character's struggle to divert. Action=point of no return.” No one is going to be making long speeches in this situation.
Along with this make sure your descriptions during a tense time are only what’s necessary and add to the tension. It’s doubtful that someone on a raft in a fast river is going to be paying much attention to the beautiful red rhododendron flowers under the dark evergreens when he is headed for the falls. That information could be introduced earlier, before the danger. Instead the details during a tense time need to be those things that make it worse. The sound of the falls getting louder. A log hitting the paddle and knocking it out of the person’s hand. The spray of water, the loosening of board on the raft…
To sum up:
- Keep the action moving in a tense situation.
- Don’t stop it with flashbacks or introspection – save those for the times in between.
- Sometimes less is more - no long speeches.
- In a tense scene focus on description that adds to the tension.
*Some of you may be too young to remember, or may not have even seen the enclosed glass phone booths, except in movies. They really only fit one person comfortably. Think standard restroom stall cut in half with a folding door that folds inside the booth. And scrunch it into a square box. If you were in a phone booth with a gorilla, you’d be so up close and personal with the gorilla that you’d smell his breath, see his teeth right close to your face, and would be uncomfortably smashed against the glass or the phone itself. It doesn’t leave room for thinking about anything but “get me out of here!”
**For further reading, check out Secrets of Successful Fiction by Robert Newton Peck.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.