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Friday, 20 January 2012

How to create tension: arrive late, leave early. Eden's Trial - Teaser

A thriller requires tension. One of the rules for tension is 'arrive late, leave early.' What this means is the reader is thrown into a scene which has already started, rather than seeing it build up and develop, and then the scene is cut close to the end, so the reader knows what happens without going through all its motions. The phrase is about going to a party - do you want to be the first to arrive? It can be quite boring and a little uncomfortable. Similarly, if you are last to leave, it can be bittersweet, maybe because you have nowhere else to go. This approach respects the intelligence of the readers - they can work it out, and feel better for having done so.

A conundrum with this approach can be scene set-up. The reader mustn't be confused, so there is need for some narative to bring the reader directly into the scene. A key is verb usage - strong verbs and nouns which subliminally suggest tension and action, even when nothing is actually happening. E.g. read the following paragraph:


Rashid rammed the ankh key into the slot for the third time, but it was no use, the ship refused to move. He and two other crew members huddled in the mould-coloured control room whose curved walls made him feel like he was trapped inside the labyrinthine intestines of some giant monstrous being: dead, just not yet digested. They tried to make the Q’Roth vessel controls work, but everything was inert. Rashid bit hard on his lower lip. They’d already executed twelve perfect jumps, with the required twenty-four hour intervals to recharge the engines. Something else was wrong, and meanwhile, they dangled in space like bait on a hook.


Verbs/participles: rammed, refused, huddled, trapped, digested, bit, executed, dangled.
Nouns/adjectives: walls; labyrinthine, intestines, monstrous, inert, hard, bait.

Some of these are employed 'subliminally', e.g. 'executed', which in this case just means 'did', however, the reader's brain also registers the other meaning of this verb, as in to kill. One ot two of these alone would give a hint, but the density of them packed into a single paragraph creates a cumulative effect of foreboding - the reader knows this is going to be bad.

The piece can now ease off the tension a bit, letting the reader meet some of the others at the party. This starts as narrative, but has to launch into dialogue soon - a party where no one talks is dead...


He’d planned to move closer to the storm-shrouded planet Pierre and Katrina were surveying in the Hohash scout vessel, when he discovered the mother ship had slipped into sleep mode. At least the two thousand human refugees aboard were unaware of their predicament – tensions since they’d fled a burning Earth two weeks ago had meant he might just as well have a manifest of gunpowder rather than people, a tinderbox ready to ignite at the mere hint of a spark. He glanced at Axel and Sofia, but their furrowed brows, reflected in the jungle green lighting from the consoles, told him they were just as confused and apprehensive. He hoped his own concern was better masked than theirs. On impulse, and because they’d exhausted all other options, he kicked the stand of the extruded grey console with his boot, which did nothing whatsoever for the controls. However, a voice lanced across the room from behind him.

“Engine trouble?”

He spun around to see the upper half of a woman, honey-blonde hair strained back in a ponytail, rending her eyes – which could otherwise have been considered beautiful – too elfin-like to trust. Her crystal-clear image, sliced off at the waist, stared back at him with an equivocal expression, hovering in the middle of the room. A hologram, he assumed, though not like any he’d ever seen, and without any obvious source of projection.

“I wish to speak to Vince. Or Micah. Or even the legendary Blake Alexander.”

Rashid jutted his chin at the seated woman. “All dead, killed on Eden,” he lied. “And – you must excuse me – but we have not been introduced.”

A smile flickered like a nascent flame, and was gone. “Louise.”

He narrowed his eyes. He’d heard enough about Louise – an Alician assassin – from Micah and Vince – to presume that he, his ship and its two thousand frightened souls were in grave trouble. Yet she was supposed to be dead. He decided not to question the obvious, but she must have read his expression.

“Vince gave me a headache, but I’m all better now,” she said, mock sweetness.

He knew Vince had in fact put a hole clean through her skull. He brushed it aside: it didn’t matter how she was here. He rebuffed the idea of asking the clich├ęd question of what she wanted. As he suspected, he didn’t have to wait for her to get to the point.

“I’ve taken remote control of your ship. Perhaps that possibility didn’t occur to you when you stole it?”
He grimaced. Of course it had, which is why each of the four ships fleeing Earth and Eden had taken separate, fractally-coded pathways to the Ourshiwann home world, transiting to distant jump points, only entering each destination just before the next jump. He glanced over to the empty wall-space where the Hohash mirror-device normally resided. Pierre and Katrina had taken it to the nearby planet, looking for water. It meant he had no way to communicate with the other ships to warn them. Still, at least Pierre and Katrina might survive.

He suppressed his mounting curiosity at how this holographic projection could transmit both ways, if indeed, he wondered, it was a hologram. She looked real enough to touch, except for the obvious fact that the lower half of her body was missing. If she can interact with me – if she can hear my voice and see my actions, maybe this hologram can sense and transmit pain back to the real Louise…

She stifled a yawn. “Give me the coordinates of your final destination and you may live. If not, I will jump your ship into this system’s star.”

Rashid heard Sofia gasp and Axel take a step backwards. Sofia, a dark-skinned woman in her thirties who he’d been getting to know in the two weeks since leaving Eden, touched his arm. “Rashid –”

He tensed his body, standing to attention, and faced Louise. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

Louise didn’t answer immediately. Instead, she interlocked her fingers and flexed them outwards. The bone-cracking noise whipped across the control room.

She smiled. “Rashid, is it?”

He nodded, not blinking. He remembered learning as a Rajasthani child how to catch a cobra, or at least to judge when one was going to spit venom. At age nine he’d lost his best friend in that deadly village game. He wondered if there was some way to grab this cobra’s throat before she could strike.

“Well, I’m not after you, or your sorry baggage.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I’m after Vince and Micah. They killed me, and I need –” she leaned forward, “really, I need, to repay the privilege.” She reclined, folding her arms. “Give me your flight plan and I’ll leave you with one jump possibility, following which your ship’s navigation database will corrupt. There’s a planet nearby with oxygen, though it’s a tad heavy on sulphur. You might survive, after a fashion.”

He heard Axel hovering near the doorway, and he understood. The young engineer had married only three weeks ago, and knew where he wanted to be when… Rashid shut out everything except the cobra. “Give us some time to decide, I need to consult with other members of the crew and the council,” he ventured, guessing it would make no difference.

Louise shook her head once. “No, Rashid. You’re Captain, so it’s not a democracy. You have one minute before you get to see the inside of a star.”

Rashid knew it was probably futile, but he’d kick himself if he didn’t at least try. He reached over his shoulder with his right hand, felt inside the back of his collar, and found what he was looking for. In one smooth flowing movement he hurled the stiletto straight at, and through, Louise’s left eye. The knife lodged into the far wall with a thwack. At his side, Sofia gulped.

“Nice aim,” said Louise. She hadn’t even blinked. “Fifty-five seconds.”

He pursed his lips, then moved to the back of the control room. “Move aside,” he said, brushing Axel out of the way so he could access the navigation console. “You’re dismissed ensign.”

‘But Sir, I –’

Rashid seized him by the shoulders, and spoke softly. “Go to her. Now.” He pushed so that Axel half-stumbled backwards, then turned and darted out onto the central ramp. Rashid tapped in a flight plan. Sofia shadowed him, peering over his shoulder as he stooped over the displays and controls. He heard her soft intake of breath as she recognised the decoy flight plan Pierre had created just before he had left. She clutched his forearm as he typed. His fingers chopped at the keyboard as if he was entering their death sentence. She whispered into his ear, her voice unsteady. “You’re doing the right thing.”

He’d have preferred it if she’d started clawing at him, begging him not to lie to Louise. He punched in the transmit command and walked back towards the hologram, steady, setting his jaw. “It is done.”

Louise studied something outside the hologram frame. “I’d warn you that if it’s a trick, I’ll be back.” She cocked her head, elfin eyes gleaming. “But there’s no point, is there, Rashid? Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Say goodbye to your girlfriend.” The hologram dissolved into granules of flickering violet, then vanished.

He knew it would be fast. He met Sofia’s wide, frightened eyes. He reached out to her, stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. Everything froze, and shifted into the familiar mercurial shades that meant that the ship, together with him, Sofia, his crew, and its precious goods – a quarter of surviving humanity – had just jumped.

Rashid had no illusions about the colour he would see next, but its brightness was beyond anything he could ever have imagined.


The tension is maintained and increased by the following:

Rashid and Louise both lie to each other.
Louise's casual brutality. Her tone is mocking, yet she has no qualms about killing two thousand people.

Louise's dialogue: She stifled a yawn. “Give me the coordinates of your final destination and you may live. If not, I will jump your ship into this system’s star.”

And again: "Nice aim. Fifty-five seconds."And again: "Say goodbye to your girlfriend."
Rashid's mind (we're in his Point of View [POV] throughout) doing overtime, trying to figure out what he can do.
The timeframe - the whole scene lasts less than three minutes.
The action - Rashid's desperate knife-throw to kill her, in case the hologram is in some way real.
The sympathetic character - even while trying to figure out how to beat Louise, Rashid is concerned for Axel, and there is unrequited passion for Sofia. Note this is not overplayed - he does not suddenly grab her and kiss her - he is not that kind of guy (making him more sympathetic)
External references - to Pierre and Kat - they at least will escape. This is important because otherwise the reader may wonder why they read this part, if it introuduced then summarily executed a character. This is like saying - the party's not over, it's going to continue over at Pierre & Kat's place (which incidentally, is on the next page in the book).
The ending: this isn't horror fiction. The oblique reference to blinding white is enough for the reader to understand.


For more ideas on how to create tension... read the book :-)

Eden's Trial available on Amazon
The Eden Paradox also available on Amazon as ebook and paperback

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