Dispersing High Tension Scenes Throughout Your Novel

So cute, right? There’s definitely a place for sweet moments in fiction, and for plot and character development. Sweet scenes of wild abandon are some of my favorites to write. The truth, though, is that it can’t all be fun and games and playing fetch….


As I outline my NaNoWriMo novel, I’m only realizing after the fact how relieved I am I have a high tension scene planned already, in chapter four.

I’ve scrapped a WIP before when, after 100 pages, I felt nothing had really happened, so I’m glad to see that I’ve learned from that and made sure to get some action in at the beginning.

One of the most difficult things about writing a novel, for me, is dispersing high tension scenes throughout, to quickly grab and then maintain reader interest throughout the work. What those scenes entail, of course, depend on your genre.

If you’re a romance writer, or a horror writer, your definition of “high tension” will be different from mine as a fantasy writer. Since I write about sorcerers, my “high tensions” scenes involve fights or battles of some kind involving magic use, or putting a character in a situation where a lot is at stake if he or she can’t use magic or cunning to get out of it.


Plotting out a good novel is really a balancing act…. While scenes of tension are good and necessary, if ALL you have is action, action, action, without any time to breathe, any down-time, any moment for your characters to digest what’s happening to them and through that process reveal who they are–thereby giving your readers a reason to connect with and to care about them–you’ll get reviews saying your book is full of cheap thrills.

Having stuff happen isn’t enough by itself; you need to make sure your reader is invested in the outcome of all the craziness. Otherwise, like the hit song “Cable Car,” your reader will end up feeling, “I’d rather run the other way than stay and see the smoke and who’s still standing when it clears.”

Good books don’t sacrifice character development for more and more and more action. Too much of a good thing can definitely exist.

So, like I said, it’s about balance. I aim for having a handful of action scenes dispersed throughout my work until I reach the big moment to end it all. One tip is, during the editing phase, to make a list of scenes, going chapter by chapter, and name each one action/high tension, or low tension/development (whether that’s development of plot, backstory, or character).

One of the most useful parts of editing is moving scenes around, so if you find you’re out of balance, you can consider whether shuffling scenes is possible to give you more of a balance overall. That way you can avoid boring your reader with too long a string of development scenes, or, conversely, burning out your reader with too much action and no breaks.

Don’t forget, as well, that you can balance individual scenes as individual units. Take things slowly at the start of an action scene, allowing a moment for the tension to build in which development can take place. Seeking an example of this, my mind went right away to “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Sure, Rowling’s writing isn’t perfect, but she didn’t achieve the fame and success she has without reason. Remember that scene where Harry and Malfoy have to serve detention together in the Forbidden Forest? There’s a lot of character development in their interactions, and Harry’s grudging acceptance of his partner, and Malfoy’s sense of entitlement running rampant before they encounter the creature that’s been killing the unicorns.

Successfully written moments of tension don’t just come out of nowhere, and the period where things are warming up are full of opportunity. Don’t let them go to waste!

So, what do you think about this? How do you define a high-tension scene in your work? How do you work towards balancing out different kinds of scenes? What books have you read that really achieve that balance well?

I have to admit that my favorite novel, “Les Miserables,” is my favorite in spite of failing to balance, not because of balance. There are lots of philosophical moments jammed together that don’t really put anything at risk. It’s a deep read. You read “Les Mis” to be inspired and challenged, not to be entertained.


17 responses to “Dispersing High Tension Scenes Throughout Your Novel

  1. I definitely agree. High tension is necessary for most people who read for fun rather than philosophy. I love reading and writing low-tension, thoughtful works – but I’ve found that I can’t keep the voice up past a certain point.

  2. I really like how you write about your process. It’s so helpful in thinking about my emerging process (which is more like throwing pasta against a wall to see what sticks at this point). Great fodder for thought – thanks.

  3. I agree with everything say. I write fantasy too and it really is important to spread out the battles. Though, sometimes I’m not always successful because it’s coming close to the end of the book and everyone is squaring off with each other. Would you consider character arguments and lover spats as high tension scenes as well?

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  8. Recently came across your site, and have been enjoying browsing various articles.

    The whole idea of alternation reminds me of music so much, and your points, like allowing a little development as an action scene begins, really ring for me.

    I esp liked your last paragraph,

    “‘Les Miserables,’…There are lots of philosophical moments jammed together that don’t really put anything at risk. It’s a deep read. You read “Les Mis” to be inspired and challenged, not to be entertained.” –

    I agreed with it immediately, then thought, hey wait, what’s being risked here “are” my philosophical stances, esp if I’m being “challenged.”

    And inspiration is, for me, the coin’s other side of challenge; with an impetus for continuation, rather than change.

    Yes, thoroughly enjoyed this, thanks so much. 🙂

    • So glad you enjoyed it!!!! And you are right what you say about risk in reference to Les Miserables or any other kind of deep read.

      I was coming at it from the perspective of plot… lot of digressions that move away from the plot and don’t involve risk for the characters. I was thinking of things from the perspective of the reader. That’s so, so true what you say!

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