Keep Slow Scenes Moving With Tension and Foreboding

This week’s video shows how Patrick Rothfuss cleverly made even slow scenes in The Name of the Wind interesting by prompting reader anticipation with foreboding and foreshadowing.

Video Transcription:

Not every scene in our stories can be set at a fever pitch of excitement. Just like our own lives, the lives of our characters need to balance the tense, dangerous, exciting moments with moments of calm reflection, everyday activities, and seemingly safe retreats. Without these slower scenes, our books run the risk of feeling frenetic. But how do we make sure readers don’t find our necessary low-key scenes so low-key that they start yawning and flipping pages to get back to the “good stuff”?

We can start by borrowing a page from Patrick Rothfuss’s fantasy The Name of the Wind, Book 1 of the Kingkiller Chronicles. This novel is a lengthy, lyrical, detailed account of the first fifteen years of its narrator’s life. The character, who readers are told will grow up to be a tortured hero with a dark past, encounters all sorts of interesting and dangerous adventures, which are interspersed with slower, information-heavy scenes. Rothfuss does an admirable job of using tension and foreboding to keep readers glued to the page during even the slowest of scenes. For example, an early scene features the hero visiting a tavern to listen to a famed storyteller. The scene itself doesn’t present much in the way of conflict, so Rothfuss cleverly opens by telling readers that this particular tavern is the haunt of the narrator’s enemy, who’s out to kill him. Instantly, we’re invested in this seemingly mundane scene. Certain the protagonist is going to be ambushed any minute, we chew our fingernails as he sits there calmly listening to the storyteller.

Whenever you have the need to write a low-key scene, make sure readers understand that more is at play than just what they see on the surface. If you can help readers understand that this quiet scene is only a lull before the storm, their sense of foreboding will ratchet tension into even the gentlest of scenes.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your best trick for keeping readers interested in slower scenes?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is something that I feel I struggle with. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Patrick Rothfuss is an amazingly talented writer. He’s one of the few writer’s that’s kept my attention for 1000 pages straight and around page 900, I didn’t want it to be over and wanted more more more. I can’t wait for the third book of the trilogy.

    What you describe is what I appreciate so much about his writing – he knows to capture your attention even with the simplest, most mundane scenes because you know that there is *something* at stake. All scenes serve a purpose.

    Thanks for this blog! 😀

  3. Speaking of Patrick Rothfuss and tension, I copied and annotated a chapter ending that concludes with the sentence ‘It was a beautiful day.’ When you can imbue a sentence like that with tension, you know you’re on the right track. Prior to that line he established a sense of foreboding by using words with innate micro-tension (an ‘urgent’ call of nature, ‘blood-red’ sumac), hinting back at an earlier threat by referring to something similar (walking through spiderwebs when the readers saw a demon that looked like a spider earlier), and including a line about the worst having happened which blatantly sets up something even worse happening as every scary movie ever can attest to. By the time you get to the beautiful day, you’re convinced something bad is about to happen.

  4. I just revised a scene in which my MC is alone, expecting something to happen that doesn’t. In order to find out what went wrong, he has to call the one person he hasn’t much got along with, the person who has belittled his goal. That’s tense enough. Then I give the reader a reason to care about said character (see, he’s not so bad), which lulls the reader into a false sense of security–and then BAM! something really bad happens.

    Amping up the personal tension between two or more characters or developing their problematic relationship in unexpected ways is one of my favorite tricks for maintaining tension.

  5. @Lydia: Glad it came in handy!

    @Manon: I can’t believe it took me so long to read this book. Fabulous stuff. The sequel is at the top of my library list, and I’m already salivating over the final installment.

    @Sophia: Irony and juxtaposition are often hugely powerful chapter endings. Nothing sends chills better than an evil man playing a beautiful song on a violin or death smelling like violets.

    @Greg: When in doubt, we can’t go wrong with a little personal conflict between characters. It amps up the tension, keeps readers engaged, and is usually just plain fun to write!

  6. Great tips! Now I think I have another book to add to my lengthy “to-be-read” list… 🙂

  7. This one is worth reading. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.

  8. I struggle with keeping the tension in slower scenes, so these are good tips to keep in mind. The “lull before the storm” suggestion is great. Tacking that one to my bulletin board.

    Adding The Name of the Wind to my list. Love the title. 🙂

  9. Yeah, the title’s fabulous. This is a fantasy, so probably not your ordinary cup of tea. But it’s very different from most fantasy. I would classify it as “literary fantasy.”

  10. Sandy Westendorf says

    Great tip, very timely [for me]. I recently drafted a scene which two of my critters mentioned it was slower than what they had come to expect. I have been struggling with an idea to keep up the tension and pace embedded in the rest of the story. I think you have just solved my dilemma – thanks so much~

  11. Slow scenes become the bane of every writer at some point or another – because we all have to write them. It’s easy to feel like every time we slow the breakneck pace of our book, we must be boring readers to death. But, actually, just the opposite is true: when the pacing never varies, readers grow exhausted and, eventually, bored.

  12. You are SO good at those vlogs! Thoroughly impressed! And great info!

  13. Thanks, Katie. 🙂 I’m so glad you’re enjoying them!

  14. Actually, I had never heard the ending of The Great Gatsby, so it was a complete shock to me.

    I finished it last night and I would highly recommend it. Some of the best writing I have ever encountered, but not pretentious at all. It is a really well told story.

  15. I’m looking forward to it. I see they have a new movie version coming out, and it’s my unofficial rule that I have to read the book before watching the movie. So I figured I’d better get cracking.

  16. Wonderful advice! I love this post. Some writers think you need to have action going on at all times, but I’ve always disagreed with this. Slow scenes don’t necessarily equate boring scenes. Like you said, if tension is brought in, it’ll keep the reader’s interest.

  17. Sometimes it’s awe-inspiring to realize how slow a good author can make a scene – and still have it be absolutely fascinating. When you can do that in a story, you can do anything.

  18. Thanks for the advice. I am working on something right now where I think this will be a particular challenge. Hopefully I can keep this in mind.

  19. My problem is dropping tension at the end of a scene. I leave the characters resting, then change setting. Too much short story practice.

  20. @Mary Kate: What fun is writing if it’s not challenging, right? 😉 I hope you get it all figured out to your satisfaction.

    @Cricket: Rising tension at the end of the scene is almost always better. After all, we have to give readers a reason to keep turning pages to the next scene.

  21. Excellent article, Katie. I often run into scenes when I edit that have very little purpose. Or maybe they introduce something important, but it’s only foreshadowing, not full-blown tension. I always advise my clients to merge that bit of information with other slow scenes or with another sec which carries more impact. That way the new scene gives the author “more bang for their words” so to speak.

  22. I’m currently working on fleshing out several sections in my WIP. Adding new scenes to an already completed story arc really drives home the importance (and the difficulty) of making every scene matter to the plot in an integral and interesting way.

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