In scene writing, the tension is often centered between two characters and their boundaries. One wants something, and readers don’t know whether she’ll obtain it. By degrees, the other character either withholds or invades the first character’s boundaries, which leads to increasing tension.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you write scenes with mounting tension by using the characters’ boundaries?
He’s Watching You
The least invasive boundary a character can cross is with sight. A character who glances, stares or ogles crosses the other character’s personal boundary. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. This is why it can either be welcoming or threatening when someone makes eye contact.
When you use eye contact to ratchet up tension, it’s usually best to let the character with the most to lose be the one who gets the eyeball treatment. This character will have the most reaction to the gazing, staring or glancing, which in turn ups the tension more.
While it can seem stereotypical to have characters looking at one another, it’s also effective in raising tension. If the characters have attraction, a gaze puts questions in readers’ minds: Will they get together? If the stare is menacing, readers wonder what kind of danger the other character is in. As a general rule, use eye contact at the beginning of a scene’s tension build-up.
Your Personal Space
The next step in raising a scene’s tension can be one character violating the other character’s personal space. We’ve all experienced people who stand just a bit too close to us. Take this idea and apply it to the next level of tension in your scene. Again, if the parties are attracted, one character’s bold move closer to the other makes readers feel the romantic tension building. In life, when we’re attracted to another, we silently hope we’ll accidentally brush up against him or her, increasing tension both through anticipation and the unknown.
When you need to raise tension beyond eye contact, you can manage your readers’ emotions by moving a character closer to another or by withholding what readers are hoping will occur. In the same way, a character crossing the boundary of another’s personal space can be upsetting or even frightening. Depending on your story, you can raise tension by moving one character a little too close to the other. And as before, the person whose boundary is violated should likely be the character with the most to lose.
That Touching Moment
Touch is often overlooked as a powerful sense. Yet as the Desmond Morris book, Intimacy: A Zoologist’s Classic Study of Human Intimacy details, as touch becomes more and more intimate, humans can either feel more receptive (as in sexual encounters) or more violated or threatened (as in assault). For a great lesson on intimacy based on Morris’ ideas, go HERE. When you’re writing scenes with increasing tension, you can control where and how characters touch one another. By increasing intimacy by degrees, you up the tension. A scene that begins with a character touching the other character’s hand and progressing to more and more private body parts builds tension in two ways.
First, tension rises through anxiety of anticipation. How far will it go? Second, tension gets tighter as worries over privacy or interruption erupt. If the characters are attracted to each other, readers hold their breath hoping intimacy keeps going. If the scene is violent, readers worry about the perpetrator stopping the unwanted touch or the victim escaping.
You can further raise tension by taking readers to the brink of intimacy and then either interrupting or throwing more conflict their way. Don’t be afraid to write scenes where you “tease” your readers by stepping across boundaries to up tension and then interrupt the intimacy. But don’t tease them too often—eventually readers will demand that you show them the outcome of so much boundary-crossing.
For scenes that sizzle with tension, start with looks, progress to closeness and then on to touch in ever more intimate ways.