KnowHow rounds off the new with a new Writing KnowHow series. Author of Orphan Monster SpyMatt Killeen shares his tips on writing tension. Note, this piece includes spoilers for Orphan Monster Spy and Sabotage (1936). 

1) Tension
I’m told I do this, but unhelpfully, it seems to be instinctive. Then I realised why I’m apparently unconsciously proficient in the art….

2) Look at Cinema
At uni I studied, wrote and made films. Most cinematic techniques are directly transferable. For tension (& regrettably misogyny & harassment), see HITCHCOCK.

3) Plant a bomb
Two people in a café talking about sport, is one thing. Show the audience a bomb under the table and the whole tone of the scene changes.

4) Make the audience work
Stop talking and run, there’s a bomb! Cries the viewer.

5) Make the stakes crystal clear…
The reader shouldn’t be as naïve Orphan Monster Spy’s Sarah and have the benefit of hindsight – we are told the place and time, and that Sarah is Jewish. We know what this means.

6) …but hide them from your protagonist

The bomb is in a suitcase. I make it clear that in 1939, no one is being exterminated…yet. The characters do not yet know the stakes, but the reader does.

7) Make everyone wait
You see the Ice Queen’s default level of bullying, then, despite the ever-present threat, Sarah is left untouched right up until the end of the River Run. I only hint. The suggestion is much more powerful than the details.

8) Shakespeare – or don’t add a conservatory onto the suspense you’ve built
The bard wrote in rests for his lead. Someone came on and made knob jokes. This comic relief served another purpose – too much tension is exhausting. Have something nice and human happen. Sarah has peanut butter and cappuccino. And know when to stop.

9) Tick, tick, tick
A reminder of the stakes: I cheat in Orphan Monster Spy, by making the reality of Elsa’s invitation both a twist – if you’ve missed the signs – and the metaphorical bomb. Sarah discovers, but forgets, because she was drunk. The reader knows for the entirety of Xmas Eve what the stakes are, while Sarah doesn’t.

10) Don’t explode the bomb
Hitchcock said, the bomb mustn’t do harm – a mistake he made in Sabotage. The audience demands relief. In Orphan Monster Spy, Elsa arrives in the nick of time to stop that most dreadful of bombs. It has already gone off under Elsa but she gains a measure of justice and redemption.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Matt Killeen lives near London with his soulmate, children, dog and musical instruments, looking wistfully north at his hometown, Birmingham. Orphan Monster Spy, his first novel, is a US Bestseller and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Branford Boase Award. The sequel, Devil Darling Spy, will be published in Spring 2020. Find Matt on Twitter @by_Matt_Killeen

Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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