Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts: Writing Tension


I’m going to go ahead and say that this is my absolute favorite thing to discuss about good writing. In fact, I’m going to assert that 76% of the time a book is described as “bad”, it’s because of tension issues.1

The actual word “tension” comes from the Latin word tensio(n- ), and from the French word tendere, meaning “stretch.” I normally shudder when I see someone starting a paper with a definition, but here is my exception, because it’s just so COOL. When we experience good tension, we feel it physically—our throats tighten, our stomachs clench, we feel the muscles and ligaments in our joints stiffen and “stretch” taut—all from words on a page. It’s a visceral response,  and here’s the best part—when we experience tension, we’re not responding to what an author is saying. We’re responding to what isn’t being said.

That’s right—tension comes from deliberate space. It’s the shadows, the negative space, the darkness. We’re scared of the night when we’re little because of what we can’t see. And tension in writing is the same. When we read, we physically tense up because we can sense that there is something being left unsaid.

Now, we’re talking about romance here, right? Not murder mysteries. But guess what, same principal applies to sexual tension. We physically respond to what COULD happen between the characters we’ve become emotionally invested in, and the author executes that the exact same way—by creating tension through what isn’t said. 

Here’s why I think analyzing tension is so cool: good writing adds tension in a lot of sneaky ways. 

First off, let’s discuss the obvious. Crafty information gaps in the plot. This one will smack you right in the face if it’s done poorly. The reader doesn’t want to be told exactly what’s going to happen and why in a straightforward and no nonsense way. We love nonsense. We LIVE for nonsense. The hero has a dark and sordid past? Leave me little clues and make me guess. The heroine is secretly in love with her brother’s best friend and it can never ever happen? You better let me see some serious pining, but don’t you dare just spill those beans. 

But here’s the thing–it’s harder than it looks. An author can’t withhold too much of the plot and just dump it all at once, or the reader will feel duped. It’s a mutual relationship the author and the reader have, and the reader wants to be involved in the unfolding. An author also can’t drop too many hints, or the reader will feel bored and unsatisfied. They can’t just throw in some sneaky plot twists and call it good. Essentially–tension is a lot harder to execute than it might look.

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Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts: Acts and Plot Structure

Here we are, delving into the first real meaty Hearts and Crafts. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE AND THIS WILL BE AWFUL! IT’S HAPPENING NOW AND IT IS AWFUL! Ah, I’ve written the first paragraph, and it’s better than I thought. I am filled with relief and satisfaction.

And there, my friends, are the three acts of a Romance novel–or really, the bones of the whole plot. Let’s investigate.

I think a lot of us imagine that writers create a book the same way we clean a bathroom–from the top down, with a little effort, and as quickly as possible. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who do write that way–but most of the writers I’ve known spend a LOT of time staring into space or daydreaming, and then even more time mapping out the plot. (And then sometimes there’s a little writing, but then it’s back to the plot map for a tweak…and then maybe they sit on things for a while and let it stew…and then they get out a few more chapters…you see my point.) You do not need to plan out or carefully time how and when you’re going to clean a bathroom. If you miss a spot, you won’t likely ruin anyone’s bathroom experience. Authors DO need to plan out their plots. Messing this up WILL sully a reader’s experience. And one of the easiest ways to make sure a plot progresses smoothly is by using acts.

Acts are essentially what they seem–just like in a play, they chunk the plot into sections that help manage the tension. And, as we know, tension is one of the most critical components of the plot–if the plot is the skeleton of the book, tension is the breath. (We’ll talk about tension soon!) Most novels tend to be in three acts, but I’m sure there are plenty of examples of authors who have successfully done this differently. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on three.

Essentially, mapping out a book into three acts splits the plot into three sections–the set up, the mess, and lastly the crisis and resolution. 

In the first Act, we should meet the characters, get settled into the setting and we should get some idea of what the issue is going to be. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in bold letters, but we should be able to begin to see some sort of a hazy question. In Romance, it’s almost always going to be “how will they get to their HEA”? If you’re lucky, it’ll be more juicy and complicated than that. As a reader, at the close of the first Act you should feel engaged, comfortable with your understanding of what’s going on, and curious.

In the second Act, we should see a build up to the Big Crisis. This section is where an author’s talent really shines through–in Romance, it helps to see both an inner unfolding of the issue and the outward. That means that regardless of POV, we should be seeing clear indicators of emotional tension and development while the plot develops outside of the characters. (Remember, Ingrid’s Theory of Romance means that the main players need to be experiencing a shift both internally and ultimately together.) In short, we get the mess. There can be multiple little bumps prior to the big crisis build up, but at the close of the second Act, we should be ramping up for that big issue, and it should be clear that this is happening. As a reader, at the close of the second Act you should feel the tension coming to a peak–depending on how intense the plot is (romantic suspense could be VERY intense) this is the part where you should feel like the couple is now unable to avoid answering that question posed in the first Act. How are they going to get there??

In the third Act, we should see at the opening that the crisis is looming. The characters are going to have to act, and this is the point in Romance where we’re going to see the internal and the external issues really collide. When the question has been answered and the internal and external tension is resolved, we (hopefully) get some time to process that sweet, sweet catharsis. Depending on how extreme the crisis tension was, the reader will need the author to walk them down from that emotional state, so this is where you might see acts of tenderness, a tension-releasing intimacy scene, sweet vindication, resolute retribution–anything that helps the reader feel steady again. As a reader, at the close of this third Act you should feel that the question has been answered and you should feel satisfied and happy. The characters have gotten the HEA they wanted or needed, and it was a wonderful ride.

Even if an author has fantastic characters, engaging crises, and fresh dialogue/content, the reader won’t engage with the book if the pacing is off. Pacing guides the tension, and tension is the breath. So–how does this look and feel to a reader when an author misses the mark?

Well, if the author misses the mark in the first Act, the reader may experience:

  • Confusion. What’s going on here? Who are these characters again? What’s the big deal? 
  • Inability to engage. The reader really needs to care about that unspoken question by the end of the first Act, or they won’t keep reading. Too early or too late, and the reader loses interest.
  • Discomfort. When the reader struggles to click with the components of the first Act, it can cause a lot of discomfort. If characters are introduced too early or too late, or we get to know them at a weird time, it gets awkward.

If the author misses the mark in the second Act, the reader may experience:

  • Frustration. At this point, the reader has gotten invested. So a pacing misstep can really throw the reader for a loop. What’s happening here? Why would the characters do this thing? 
  • Loss of interest. If the reader has stuck with it for this long, and there’s a failure to generate tension at the right time, they’re going to put the book down or rage read until the bitter end. 

If the author misses the mark in the third Act, the reader may experience:

  • Confusion. Again, if by this point the pacing is messed up, the most important part of the emotional experience is going to be ruined. 
  • Disappointment. If the question posed in the first Act isn’t satisfactorily answered, the reader will be disappointed. And if the question IS answered, but it happens in a way that is too rushed or sudden, or it’s sluggish…it’s a let down.

I bet if you take a second you can think of a book that didn’t work for you, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why. The characters were fun, there was an interesting crisis, and they got their HEA–but it didn’t work for you. I’ll bet if you take a closer look, you’ll find an issue relating to pacing. When Acts aren’t structured right, the pacing is off. And when the pacing is off, the reader can feel it. 

If you want more information about Acts or if you want to try some smutty writing for yourself, check these resources out:

How to Outline a Romance Novel – Savannah Gilbo

Romance Novel Structure – Lyss Em Editing

Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts; or, How Do They Do That??

From as far back as I can remember until I went to college, I wanted to be a writer. But then I realized that I needed too much therapy to handle the rejection that goes hand-in-hand with writing. So, I decided I wanted to work in publishing. Then, I realized what working in publishing is actually like (because I did it, and it feels like when you take the tube of a vacuum and you point it directly in front of your face and try to breathe normally, only instead of the air leaving your body against your will it’s your self-worth), so I decided I wanted to be a homesteader in an idyllic setting where I could preserve all my own food and weave lovely and practical things. But I don’t want to live in a rural area, canning is a little scary, and I don’t actually have room for the wedding china my mom insisted I register for, let alone a loom, so here I am.

Some things just won’t die though, and for me it’s how much I love writing. It doesn’t even have to be my writing—I could sit in a writing circle and pick over someone else’s hard work for hours, happily. I do it with my author friends now just for fun. So, when Erin and Holly suggested I channel some of my “I know how the author executed that THING in this book and I can gush over it until either your eyes glaze over or you suddenly see what I’m talking about” impromptu lectures into a feature where I discuss the craft of romance novels, I immediately thought, that sounds like a terrible idea. I’m one of a gazillion English majors, from a college no one knows exists, and my resume isn’t impressive at all. (Seriously, Erin once called it “a hiring manager’s nightmare”.) Lots of people like writing, and lots of people critique it, but that does not make them Anne Lamott. And I am not Anne Lamott. I pick dried applesauce out of doll hair and keep track of who went to the dentist when. I am not qualified to present anything to anyone.

So anyway, my answer was no, that’s a terrible idea, I would love to. Let’s absolutely do it. Also, let’s do it as a recurring feature so I can really dig in and get nerdy about it. Because it’s fun, and really good romance novels have a ton of interesting things going on that work together to make them look “easy” and “trashy” and like “mindless beach reads”. And honestly, it turns out that unlike doctoring, there isn’t a regulatory board for romance novel analysis. So no one’s going to arrest me for failing to be suitably superlative. (I did check.) I can just do it because it’s fun, I can, and I want to.

So that’s pretty much the idea here. I want to isolate some of the tools and skills romance authors use to craft their work, and I want to explain how they’re used effectively to evoke a strong response in the reader. I’m going to pick apart things that can be really subtle but make a huge impact on how we readers respond emotionally and mentally, like pace, sentence structure, and dialogue breaks. And I’m probably also going to make some wild assertions that I hope you can challenge me on, like, “slow burns work better in 1st person present with a single POV” and “for good tension, it’s more about what you don’t say than what you do”. And I’ll come with receipts, because I paid like, $80,000 for my English education and I might as well use it properly. 

So this is Hearts and Crafts, where I take my glue and scissors and break down how we make romance work so beautifully. Is there anything YOU want to learn more about?