Friday, April 15, 2016

Keep the Tension Tight #AmWriting

Have you ever watched a rocket launch with a lot of fire and gusto only to turn and plummet straight to the ground? After spending so much time revising the beginning of your book to propel the reader into a captivating world, the last thing you want to do is lose that momentum.

As my editing clients will testify, I spend a lot of time harping on passive voice, meaningless backstory, and the art of showing rather than telling. Why? The simple answer is that those things are boring and slow the pace. I equate them to lazy writing.

Let's face it—first drafts include a lot of lazy writing because our intention as writers is to tell the story, to rip it out of our hearts and bleed it onto the page all the way to the end no matter what. Fine.

That's the first step.

But do you maintain the tension after all has bled out? Or does some of it feel forced, as if you're just trying to get through this and that before reaching the 'good parts' again? It's okay if you have sections of this in your first draft, but not in the second or third or fourth. Readers will notice these sections and skim them, if not completely abandon the book. Have you ever read a book yourself and started skimming ahead? Those are the sections where the author dropped the tension.

Let's avoid doing that ourselves. We don't want our readers skimming over anything.

Tension does not mean having constant action throughout, which would become exhausting to both write and read. The art of maintaining tension involves making each scene, every word of dialogue, count. If it doesn't propel the plot forward, it isn't sustaining momentum. Period. It's that easy to determine.


Oh, the flashbacks. Let's discuss these, please. Pages of backstory are not okay. If you're writing a suspense novel that is rich with action and suddenly your character is reminiscing over something from a decade ago—and it goes on for more than a few sentences—then you have completely taken your reader out of the moment. Bam! You've dumped cold water over their heads.

Introduce backstory through dialogue or in brief glimpses throughout the story, but not in huge chunks that go on for pages. You may feel that the flashbacks give the reader a glimpse into the character's past, which if fine, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Dialogue is the best way for a character to reveal their backstory. It is the most natural, especially if done in little glimpses during the story's development. Imagine having lunch with your character. He or she is sitting across from you right now. How is the conversation going? Is it one long speech or is there some give and take? Are they revealing a bit of themselves at a time, holding the deeper stuff inside until they get to know you better? Isn't that air of mystery appealing? Don't you want to keep the conversation going to learn more about this intriguing individual across from you?

As an author, that's how you want your readers to feel about your characters. They want to get to know them as they go, always wanting to know more than what you're giving them. The yearning for more will keep them turning the pages.

Another way to write effective backstory is to show snippets of flashbacks that the character may be struggling to hide from the other characters in your story—but this is also the most common mistake, depending on how it's handled by the author. Notice I used the word 'snippets' rather than pages.

He cringed at the sight of blood on her fingertip from the paper cut. Sounds of exploding bombs, screaming children, and machine gun fire overshadowed the present and transported him back to hell in the blink of an eye. He shook his head, forced himself to focus on the now, and held her hand beneath the flowing cold water. He watched the blood swirl down the drain, echoes of the past never far from the surface of his mind.

In the above example, we know this man has been in a warzone without having him actually go back in time for pages and without disrupting the scene.

Flashbacks can be a powerful tool in character development, but only when used with precision. Ask yourself what you are hoping to convey by implementing backstory. Character development is the correct answer---adding to your overall word count is the wrong one.

What if the backstory comes in the form of a dream, you ask? I have seen this utilized effectively, but even then brevity is why it worked. Keep it simple. Make sure it strengthens the storyline.

And if your editor tells you repeatedly that the backstory is boring and slows down the pace, then listen to him/her and rethink your strategy. Please.

Remember those skimmable scenes I mentioned earlier? You want to avoid those. If you feel those flashbacks are vital to your story, then find another, more creative way to express them either through dialogue or condensed into a few paragraphs.  

Have you ever watched a rocket launch with a lot of fire and gusto only to turn and plummet straight to the ground? After spending so much time revising the beginning of your book to propel the reader into a captivating world, the last thing you want to do is lose that momentum.

Showing versus telling

As an editor, I see this mistake happen a lot with writers who are also journalists or academics because they're accustomed to telling stories rather than transporting readers into another world. It's not a fault, per se, simply a different way of writing that works in journalism (or business or academia) but not with fiction or creative nonfiction.

Book readers want to feel the sun on their skin, taste the bitterness of the wine, see the sun reflecting on the water, experience the goosebumps shivering over their skin, and feel their heartbeats hammering inside their chests. Don't tell us we're scared—show us! Make us twist uncomfortably in our seats because we are experiencing the emotions and sensations of the character.

How do you the author do that? Eliminate passive voice where possible. Okay, what's passive voice, you ask? This is hard for some to recognize. A lot of people think if they simply search their document for the word 'was' they will identify it. Although this is somewhat true, I'm going to do my best to break it down.

Passive voice is identified in sentences where the target of the action is promoted to the subject. For example, "Jack is loved by Lisa." In this example Jack is the target of Lisa's love, but has been promoted to the subject. By simply switching it up to "Lisa loves Jack" the author is moving from passive to active. Lisa (subject) loves (verb) Jack (target of the love). One clue that will always identify a passive sentence is when the subject isn't taking any direct action.

I need to state that passive voice sentences aren't incorrect, but they usually aren't the best way to convey your thoughts. They can read as vague or awkward, becoming stumbling blocks in the reader's mind. Active sentences are tight, to the point, and drive the pace.

There are exceptions, of course, especially when writing a sentence where the subject is unknown (perhaps in a mystery novel) where you'd write, "the diamonds were stolen." In that case, the emphasis is on what is stolen (diamonds) because no one knows who stole them. However, as the author, it is necessary to know when it works and when it doesn't. Knowing how to identify both passive and telling is the first step in being able to judge if it's working for your story.

More examples:
The murder weapon was held by Jane. (passive)
Jane held the murder weapon. (active)

Ricky felt scared by the shadow in the hallway. (telling)
Ricky pressed against the wall, paralyzed and unable to breathe let alone scream as the shadow figure approached from the end of the hallway. (showing)

These examples are simplistic and somewhat exaggerated to show you the difference between the two. Both are easy to fix by forcing yourself as the author to step it up a notch. Rearrange the subjects of sentences so that they are doing the action to eliminate passive voice. Describe feelings and descriptions in a way that transports the reader into the mind and heart of your characters to avoid telling.

Backloading paragraphs

What?! Don't worry if you haven't heard of this literary device, but if you have, then you are a step ahead of the crowd already. I applaud you. For the rest, let's continue.

Backloading a sentence or paragraph with a power word is a subtle but powerful technique that gives your work that extra punch. Glance up the page. Notice the ending words on my paragraphs. Perhaps go back a few pages. Here's what I see:


A glance up the page of any well-written fiction or nonfiction book will show backloaded sentences. In essence, these are words that solidify meaning. They are strong nouns rather than weak adverbs or—gasp—prepositions. With fiction, it's doubly important to backload paragraphs for a powerful punch that maintains tension.

Readers subconsciously pick up on this technique and, when power words are used at the end of paragraphs and sentences, they absorb that energy. This is what elevates your writing to another level—to that page-turning-can't-get-enough-don't-let-it-stop category.

Again, for such an effective writing tool, it's easy to apply. Simply glance at your manuscript, look at the pages, and see how the ends of your paragraphs look. Then pick up one of your favorite author's books and glance up the pages. The more successful the author, the more you'll see that they've backloaded their paragraphs.

Weak writing will display weak words at the end of paragraphs—adverbs or prepositions, for example. Don't be weak.

Elevate your writing to another level—to that page-turning-can't-get-enough-don't-let-it-stop category.
Action steps for your manuscript—time to put the editor hat on again and be objective:

·      Analyze your manuscript for backstory. If you have it, ask yourself if it is necessary. If it is, how have you handled it? Is it concise? Does it stop the flow of the story? If it is more than a few paragraphs and you still feel it is vital, have you started the story in the right place?
·      Where can you amp up the story to eliminate telling and show the reader exactly what you want them to see or experience? Use descriptive words and nonverbal reactions to transport your reader into the world you've created.
·      Identify passive voice and change to active where possible.
·      Glance through every page of your manuscript and check for weak endings of paragraphs. Trust me, this really makes a difference in establishing and maintaining tension. Once you start to see it, you'll be amazed at the difference a word makes.

Write on!
Amber Lea Easton

Amber Lea Easton is a multi-published author of nonfiction, thrillers, and romantic suspense. A professional editor and freelance journalist for nearly two decades, she created Mountain Moxie Publishing Services to assist authors in mastering the writing craft. Her memoir, Free Fall, is dedicated to spreading suicide awareness, has topped international best selling charts, and has been named by Dr. Prem as fourth on the "Ten Most Inspiring True Stories Everyone Must Read" list. Easton is also a speaker regarding parenting through trauma and suicide awareness. To discover more about Mountain Moxie Publishing Services, please go to For a list of all of Easton's books, articles and interviews, go to


  1. I can attest to your effective editing service. The point on observations and directness- extremely vital and very appreciated. Makes for a better book and growth as a writer.

  2. You always have such good advice. Thank you.

  3. Oh thank you for writing this, especially the bit about flashbacks. You nailed it!!