My husband took me out to a wonderful dinner last night. It’s one of his weaknesses—good food and wine. When we lived in Orange County, California—and before we had children—this wasn’t a problem. There were many excellent restaurants within easy driving distance. But last night was the first time since we’ve been in Arizona that we went to a nice restaurant. Actually, it was the first time since our anniversary since we’d been out anywhere together without kids.
I think most of us have good memories of a nice restaurant on a special occasion or a memorable meal. So it seems natural for us to create those kinds of situations in our books. Right?
Donald Maass doesn’t think so. In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook he calls these low-tension scenes. He says the most controversial part of his workshop is where he tells authors “to cut scenes set in kitchens or in living rooms or in cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee” (know how often Starbucks shows up in my book?) “or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages.”
Often these scenes are skimmable. They don’t add new dimensions to the characters, or deepen conflict or complicate matters. They relax tension and review what’s happened. Basically a Sequel in Swain/Bickham terminology.
And I have to admit, when we went out to dinner last night, it was pretty low tension. Except for when my daughter called in tears because the dog had taken her brother’s piece of pizza, and she was afraid the dog was going to get sick. He’s allergic to animal protein. Yes, I know, we have a weird family—even the dog.
In real life, I want a low-tension dinner. I don’t want Peter to tell me he’s been fired, or we’re being investigated by the FBI, or he lost one of the kids. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear that someone’s been stalking me or torched our minivan. However, I’ll happily do that to my characters.
And yet, can you imagine a novel with no eating or drinking or driving or showering scenes? No. So what do you do?
Well, obviously famous writers make it work. Maass uses the example of the Da Vinci Code. While a good portion of the book can be a study in what not to do, Brown’s pacing at the beginning is quite good. And lest you think this only applies to commercial or genre fiction, Maass goes on to use two literary examples: Sister Noon and The Lovely Bones. While we don’t typically think of literary works as being tension-filled, there has to be a question, something we want to find out that keeps us reading. Tension and unease do this. We’ll keep reading to see what happens next.
I’ll be brave and look at my recently completed manuscript for these low-tension scenes in the first fifty pages. I’ll admit it. I have a car ride and three lunch scenes in the first fifty pages. Yikes! (I also have two car chases and a gang initiation.) However, no one has complained about the lack of tension. Here’s why I think that is. Kyle, who has just met Heather, is giving her and his friend Bernie a ride out to lunch with a couple of other people from church. I added tension to this scene in a couple of ways. One, Heather is interested in Kyle so you have all those little jitters going on. Two, she just found out he’s a cop, and she’s not sure how she feels about that. Three, Bernie keeps bringing up the day’s sermon, a topic that makes Heather uncomfortable. So I use the car as a way to force Heather into an uncomfortable situation with no easy escape.
And I don’t let the tension up at the restaurant. I actually wasn’t going to write this scene, but Mike Synder made me do it (gotta blame him for something). Mostly I was afraid that it would be a boring scene, but at his encouragement, I switched to Kyle’s POV and built up tension by having him and Bernie both being interested in Heather and doing a little positioning for her attention.
The next two lunch scenes are settings for conflict too. One, Heather’s stalker ex-boyfriend shows up while she’s having lunch. And in the other Kyle’s friend Joe basically calls Kyle a chicken for not asking Heather out yet.
Ultimately, I think the point Maass is making is not that scenes involving food, drink or cars are bad, just that writers often uses them as crutches for weak writing. So keep the tension up in your lunch and dinner scenes. In your writing that is. In real life it’ll just give you indigestion.
I know y’all aren’t shy. Anybody care to share how they infuse their “no-no” scenes with tension? I need some ideas for my current book.