Increasing Tension in a Novel

Manipulating time. Increasing tension.
Deepening character.
These are all craft concepts writers are taught and that
we study for years. But there’s nothing like actually applying that knowledge
and seeing your words make a satisfying impact. While there’s no formula for
it, I’ve looked to author Ursula Hegi’s Children and Fire for technique as I navigate my way through writing my first novel. The
technique I’d like to discuss today isn’t copyrighted–no technique in writing
can or should be. Many writers have used it. But for whatever reason, Hegi’s
voice speaks to me. I can dissect it in ways that are very useful. I’ve gone to
her again and again, as one goes to a mentor, and I’ll use her as example to
make today’s point.

About fifteen chapters ago, I abandoned
my paragraph-by-paragraph method of writing my novel by imitating form…and made
the bold leap from pen and paper to actual computer. While I still used Ursula
Hegi’s Children and Fire for inspiration, I had found enough momentum of
my own that I trusted my characters to be consistent with the foundation I had
created for them. It was a fun leap to make and got me from Chapter 12 all the
way up to Chapter 27. (FYI, examples of techniques I had studied in Hegi up to
this point: the ways in which she leaps seamlessly between her protagonist’s
mind and the narration of the story; the way she uses white space, asterisks,
date headings, and short chapters to pace the story.)

But once I reached the moment in the
novel I had been writing toward for months, I went back and looked at how Hegi
handled the last 1/3 of her book. At the apex of her novel–which, like mine,
involves one moment, a death, and one very long day–Hegi brings the reader
right to the edge of seeing the actual boy’s body. The reader knows, as her
chapter unfolds, that something horrible is about to happen (and most, I think,
probably guess accurately that it is Bruno who is going to die). But Hegi lets
the tension build as Bruno’s mother reaches to open the closet door where we
know our worst fear is about to come true (she’ll find her son in there,
hanging from a noose). Then she flashes into the mother’s mind in italics with
a string of reactionary thoughts, and ends the chapter.
Her next chapter is a flashback to twenty
years prior, giving us the backstory on the protagonist’s father. Reading this
book as a writer, I had to ask myself: why did Hegi place this
interruption and backstory here, just after the climax?
Two reasons, I believe: First and foremost,
to amplify the tension. In the present narrative of the novel, a boy has just
died. Readers are desperate to know what is going to happen next and how other
characters are reacting There is a sense of urgency as one reads, as if the
present narrative is continuing while we, the readers, have to sit back and
plug our way through this other chapter that has only a slim connection
to the boy who has just died.
The second reason I think Hegi does this
is to deepen character. Not the boy’s character. And not even so much the
protagonist’s father, who is the focus of the interrupting backstory chapter.
No…I think Hegi’s literary devise actually deepens the reader’s understanding
of her protagonist. By showing readers what she shows about the
protagonist’s father, and letting us see something about him that the
protagonist herself never fully understood, we are allowed to understand more
about the protagonist than she understands about herself. We’re given an
insider’s view and the upperhand. And as we turn the pages, this lets us guess
at how the protagonist might handle Bruno’s death. It also deepens character,
because we start to understand why she is the way she is, by way of her father.
It’s a brilliant, complex move and
certainly hard earned. But reading and studying it in this way, I was able to
give myself permission to play around with an interrupting backstory chapter of
my own, following the climax in my novel. It’s not dealing with anybody’s
father, and it’s not twenty years back in time (like Hegi’s), but it is
far afield from anything readers have seen yet in the novel. And it does
deepen the reader’s understanding of the protagonist by way of another
character who is close to him.
Food for thought, as I wind my way toward
what could very soon be the end of my first draft. Yowzah!

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