Plot & Structure Exercise 15: Tighten the Rope

Isolate a tense scene in your novel, where the conflict is at its highest. Then stretch the tension even more. Use the techniques from the chapter. Then return to it in a few days. Does it need to be cut, or have you added to the reading experience?


This is a paraphrase of the next exercise in Mr Bell’s Plot and Structure book. Seriously, this section was  so cool. Basically you zero in on a moment or a scene and blow it up. That’s the equivalent of holding the camera on the character’s face, or adding a chilling sound to a suspense sequence, or having a vase drop and break, just before the bad guy strikes. It’s the little things that add up to the actual conflict. Wow. The way Mr Bell explained is stopped my breath, while reading. Again, seriously.


Quickly, what he means by using the techniques:


  1. Set it up (that means before the tension itself, remind the reader of what is at stake by winning or losing this next moment . . . if it’s a matter of life or death, then it’s pretty obvious why the protagonist wants to win)
  2. Stretch the physical (that means adding action [a step back] or thoughts [like “wtf”] or dialogue [like “what are you doing here?”] or description [like describing the guy’s teeth, I don’t know!])
  3. Stretch the emotional (that means not taking the feelings of the character for granted, turning one feeling into a circus of feelings [instead of anger, you have jealousy mixed with pride mixed with rage mixed with feelings of inadequacy])
  4. Slow down time (this really reminds me of what Gerard Genette praises in Proust, the guy who never summarized, but made events unfold in real-time; think how a 1000-page novel covers one day; here Mr Bell tells us to really risk it, test the reader’s patience, and make time slow down)
  5. Raise the stakes (thanks, Mr Bell; basically this is making a boring objective into a matter of life or death . . .)


. . .


I won’t take a chapter of a novel I wrote. But will take two lines from a story I wrote, and which got rejected today funny enough, in order to tighten the rope even more, make those lines a real mess of tension.



Inside, Louisa was grabbing a tin can that smelled of pumpkin spice, full of watercolor pencils, and chucking the pencils across the room, marking her white wall in colored skids. Next, she reached for her sketchbook under her bed.



[Set it up] She hated that her aunt died. She hated that her aunt couldn’t take her to the museum anymore. And now she hated the watercolor pencils that had been her Christmas gift last year. [Stretch the physical] Inside her bedroom, Louisa was grabbing the tin can which held those pencils. She couldn’t help but smell the pumpkin spice tea that had originally been in there. This empty tin vessel, dented and label-faded, only reminded Louisa of what she lost. So she throw the pencils against the far white wall of her room. The brighter colors left brighter skids on the wall. The darker colors left darker ones. None had snapped though, as she would have liked, so Louisa crawled to the mess she had made and proceeded to snap one pencil after the other. The colored dust that floated in the air looked like a puff of last breath. [Stretch the emotion] Instead of tiring her, with each crunch and snap, Louisa felt her rage fuel, the knot in her chest tighten. If she had had a walnut in her jaw, it would have cracked. But when it was all over, and not a single pencil remained in one piece, she found her hands bruised and cut. Would she bleed? It felt like it, and the pain did not hide behind her anger. She would have cried, had she had any tears left. [Slow down time] She rubbed her hands against her shirt, but now she was getting that dirty. Whether she rubbed hard or soft, fast or slow, the day of her aunt’s death wouldn’t go away. Until she crawled back to her bed, and pulled out the watercolor notebook from underneath. By the time she opened it up, she was breathing again, through sobs, but breathing. [Raise the stakes] Maybe if she drew her aunt a butterfly, then maybe she would come back to life. Not just any butterfly, but the Monarch, both of their favorite butterfly in the whole world. So, in this muddle of pain, blood, and snapped watercolor pencils, Louisa began to draw.

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