Two Words To Ignite Tension

Checked out PREDATORS Friday night and dug it. One, cuz it's freakin PREDATOR (and, dudes, Adrian Brody gives American Action Hero a solid turn).

Two, I love producer Robert Rodriguez, who's still hungry for stories and always comes with a rack of killer actors (hello Danny Trejo!). (Have you checked out the trailer for MACHETE? Here's hoping the tiresomely aggro Michelle Rodriguez doesn't bork it up.)

And three, director Nimród Antal gives the franchise plenty of warmth and love for the original PREDATOR, with all kinds of judicious ass-kicking and this buzzing, god-awful tension that snatches you up and doesn't let go until shit is smashed, bleeding, wrecked up and on FIRE.

What made that movie? It was FULL of the please don't, the two most important words when it comes to building palpable tension in a story. I turn to those two words any time I need to ratchet it up in the MS.

It's easy to do: just open up your scene, drop yourself into your character's head and then ask yourself what's on the other side of that please don't for your character:

Please don't...hurt me?
Please don' what I think it is on the other side of that locked door?
Please don't...tell me to open that fucking door, because I don't think I can do it?
Please don' dead?
Please don't...let me be alone in this dark place?

Then take it just a little further and drop yourself into the other side of that please don't coin, into the head of the antagonist, into the machinations of whatever's hurling obstacles at your MC like freakin ninja stars, and into the thoughts of your supporting characters in that same scene. What are their please don'ts? What do they know of your MC's please don'ts?

Now things are starting to feel tense. (Which is another little Jedi mind trick that works for me: Where my MS needs more tension, I don't use the word "tension" in my notes. I drop a single word at the beginning of said passage: tense. That makes me think of locked up muscles, lips drawn up tight, jumpy reflexes, eyes snatching glances, etc - suddenly I know what to do to keep tightening that wire.)

Works like a charm. What about you? Got any simple tricks for making things tense?


Vicki Rocho | July 11, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Since I had kids, I can't do suspense or thrillers anymore (unless they're the family-oriented variety like Indiana Jones). I get stressed out and aggressive. NOT a good look on me.

I know I need to up the tension in my WIP though, so the next month or so could be very interesting around here as I try to take control of the Tension Beast

Amparo Ortiz | July 11, 2010 at 11:18 AM

I've never thought of this! The 'please don't' always makes me shake in my boots. Great tip!

And yeah, I'm definitely going to check out Predators now :D

Olivia J. Herrell | July 11, 2010 at 11:19 AM

Great post! I don't write horror but there needs to be tension in any genre, so thanks for the "Please don't" trick. I like it.

that rebel with a blog

Alex J. Cavanaugh | July 11, 2010 at 12:11 PM

I really dug Predators as well. And looking forward to Machete. Did you know Trejo is 66 years old?

I think the phrase 'no, I refuse' jacked up the tension in my book.

Zoe C. Courtman | July 11, 2010 at 12:49 PM

Hey, Vicki! Thanks for stopping in - and way to wrangle that tension beast!!

Thanks, Amparo! "Please don't" makes me shake in my own boots :D Definitely go see PREDATORS!!

Hi, Olivia! Glad the tip helped!

Alex - ooh, "no, I refuse." Yeah. That's a great one!

Julie Musil | July 11, 2010 at 6:26 PM

I looooove your "please don't!" Wow, I'm going to use that one for sure. Thanks!

Renae | July 11, 2010 at 10:42 PM

My son loved Predator, just went yesterday I love the "please don't tip. Great trick. I will definitely be using that little jewel! Thanks!

Roland D. Yeomans | July 11, 2010 at 11:52 PM

I truly enjoyed PREDATORS. It has the spirit and life of the first movie, even down to the music.

And you're right about the tension. It works because you get to care about the characters, even though most of them are monsters in a way. Their fear makes you root for them.

Have a great week, Roland

Stina Lindenblatt | July 12, 2010 at 7:28 AM

Great tip! I'm going to have to try that out during my current edits since I'm supposed to add a few scenes. It's to show the closeness between three friends, but it's still going to need tension. :D

Alesa Warcan | July 12, 2010 at 8:37 AM

Tensing muscles? Hmm... Strychnine will do that, or iocane powder I suppose.

Nothing like lost dose of poison in a story filled with potential murderers with excellent motives to rev up the tension! At least it will render one character past tense. ; j

Lydia Kang | July 12, 2010 at 10:22 AM

Oh yes, the "please don't"s are great. Like, "please don't screw up my flawless plan and fill it with flaws. You suck, authoress-God!"

Ha ha! I love Robert Rodriguez too! I wish I could hang out with him.

Anonymous | July 12, 2010 at 10:35 AM

Great post! (Love Adrian Brody, BTW.)

This must be karma--I've been looking at the "please don't's" that motivate my WIP's antagonist. FanTAStic!!! :D

Elliot Grace | July 12, 2010 at 11:25 AM

...comparing it to the original? That did it...I'll be heading to the theater with my oldest son shortly. I adore the Predator series, but have been bummed out following the last installment.
Thanks for the informative post. Glad I stopped by:)

L. Diane Wolfe | July 12, 2010 at 11:35 AM

I'll remember the 'please don't' trick next time!

Elana Johnson | July 12, 2010 at 1:18 PM

Wow, please don't is a great way to make sure to keep tension in the scene. I'm going to do this in my WiP.

Beth Zimmerman | July 12, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Wow! What an awesome tip for creating tension in a story line! Thanks for sharing this, Zoe. I'll keep it in mind just in case. :)

Aubrie | July 12, 2010 at 1:38 PM

Oh great! I'm thinking about seeing this movie myself.

Danyelle | July 12, 2010 at 2:15 PM

I love the 'please don't'! I've never thought of it that way before, but you're absolutely right. When I try to up the tension in a WIP, I generally think in terms of, "What could go wrong in the most possible way?" O:)

Zoe C. Courtman | July 12, 2010 at 2:52 PM

Thanks guys! It's definitely a little workhorse of a trick for me - glad to hear it might help y'all, too!! Go to it!! (And check out PREDATORS!)

Falen (Sarah) | July 12, 2010 at 3:53 PM

Reasons i loved Predators:

1. i want to have Adrien Brody's babies. This just helped to solidify those desires.

2. Predators, need i say more?

3. yes i do, because it wasn't rated PG 13 like some other predator movie...

4. Adrien Brody took his shirt off

5. the yakuza guy was awesomesauce

all those above reasons were enough to distract me from minor nitpicks that came to my attention


Carolyn V. | July 12, 2010 at 6:02 PM

I love the "please don't"! What a great idea. I will have to borrow that from you. =)

Nicole MacDonald | July 13, 2010 at 3:50 AM

Eeee scary poster! I loved the originals so crossing fingers it'll be good

Slamdunk | July 23, 2010 at 7:08 AM

Good advice. I have never thought how "Please Don't" could have such a measured effect on tension.

Visiting via Stina's link. Have a good weekend.

Lisa Gail Green | July 23, 2010 at 12:44 PM

Wow, that is awesome advice! I'm thinking I'd like to get a little closer to the horror aspect of things in my next WIP. I'm definitely going to try your tips. Heck, I'll try them in the one I'm working on now. Tension is always a good thing.

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