On Writing Tension

With Echoes out on the digital shelves, I turned my attention to completing the revision of offering number two–That Zombie Story, better known as Grave New World. 

It was a bit of a jolt. Echoes was written in more descriptive prose than I usually try, and had a sort of dreamy quality to it. GNW is darker, grittier, and moves a lot faster. The plot and characters are also much older, dating back to 2006, so while it was easy enough to slide back into Vibeke’s narrative, I had a lot of reworking ahead of me.

My two big challenges in converting The Evil That Men Do into a quartet of novellas were finding the natural break points and ratcheting up the tension.

Well, there was that whole rewriting thing…but that’s another post.

The first break point was easy enough to find–the epidemic breaks out. That left me with tension. In the original draft, Vibeke, Tony, and Dax are sitting around for several months waiting for a rescue that doesn’t come, and are finally forced to move when the city burns down. I mixed in the arrival of the undead with the fire.

I wanted Grave New World to be more zombie-centric, so on that end I had to cut out a huge chunk of story…and somehow cram all the character development that came with it into a much faster-paced plot. I handled this in three ways:

  • Is it utterly necessary? No? Cut it out entirely.
  • Is this something you can express through dialogue? (Condensed an entire paragraph of Vibeke’s heritage into two lines: “Were your parents hippies?” “No, just Norwegian.”
  • Can it be expressed through action? (Dax originally declared his reluctance to hurt people in a speech; I cut that and made him hesitate during a firefight.)

I just finished reading Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which had a lot of helpful information (albeit full of grammatical errors…WTF, Writer’s Digest? Did you fire all your editors, too?) At the end of each chapter, he offers Practical Tools to help writers with their craft. The tension chapter includes:

  • Tension in Dialogue
  • Tension in Action
  • Tension in Exposition
  • Avoiding Low-Tension Traps
  • Writing Violence
  • Writing Sex
  • Tension from Nothing

My main concerns were low-tension traps and tension from nothing. Grave New World is about 36,600 words, and that is very, very little space when compared to the big, sprawling 140,000-word monstrosity Evil was. There were aspects I wanted to keep, namely the way Tony and Vibeke discover the dead; the fire that drives them out of the city; the military segment. With those three gateposts in mind, I started rebuilding the story.

This version has a lot more action (and several additional zombie encounters), and the dialogue is…fresher. Very clipped. As a reader, I prefer tension through dialogue, so that’s the way I went while writing. Characters cut each other off, speaking in furtive whispers and darting glances. They get irritated and angry with each other. What little time Vibeke gets to think is devoted to wondering about her family and what the hell all this means.

I think the Grave New World I printed out at Kinko’s today is lightyears ahead of its 2006 counterpart. It’s certainly much more exciting. The characters hardly have a chance to breathe, much less sit around thinking. To that end, my narrator, Vibeke, has gone from a sort of smart-mouthed observer to full-fledged participant. I did end up sacrificing some of her witty commentary for the sake of moving the plot along. She’s an active protagonist now, which is what a story like this needs. 

I’ll check the print copy for horrific errors, then pass it on to the editor. Now I look to cover art…

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