CRAFT WITH KERI: False Tension

Welcome to the first post of Craft with Keri, my blog series where I give you tips on tackling some of the more tricky writing techniques. If there’s something you’d like me to write about, please request it through the contact form. This advice is solely my opinion based on my experience and personal philosophy toward fiction writing, and your story may have different needs, so don’t take it as the end-all, be-all of storytelling, but I do think it’ll help if you’re struggling! 

The reveal moment can be one of the most exciting scenes to write in your story. You’ve been dropping hints and building up to this for thousands of words, and finally, it’s time to let your reader in on what you’ve been holding back. This is the moment when you get to surprise them—while also (hopefully, if you’ve done it right) making them say “Of course! I should have seen that three chapters ago.” Or, if they’re particularly savvy, they’ll already know it and give themselves a pat on the back for being so clever.

These reveals can be so much fun, but be careful to reserve them for important moments. When you hold back details, the reader thinks there’s something significant going on. When it turns out to not be that important, the reader’s expectation falls flat. Keeping information from the reader unnecessarily creates what an editor friend of mine calls false tension.

False tension can manifest in many ways, but one simple yet common way is with the identity of a character. In stories written in 1st person or 3rd person limited, the reader should have access to what the point-of-view character knows and senses. Sometimes, though, an author’s attempt to keep some things secret from the reader ends up reading as though the narrator or point-of-view character is confused or ignorant when they’re not.

Let’s take the following scene for example:

A woman with dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail came out of the conference room at the end of the hall. She turned and smiled in my direction.

“Mary!” she said, running to me and wrapping me in a warm hug.

“It’s nice to see you, Delilah,” I replied.

This is a poorly written snippet I made up on the fly but I hope you get the gist.

Let’s assume that the context surrounding this scene indicates that Delilah being present here is not a critical moment in the story up to this point (that is, to Mary’s and our reader’s knowledge), and not a surprise for Mary.

Delilah does not introduce herself, but Mary calls her by her name. This suggests that Mary recognizes Delilah, either immediately upon seeing her, or after she is hugged. However, Mary’s language when she first sees Delilah, referring to her as a woman rather than her name, suggests that she does not know who the other woman is.

Because Mary is a first-person narrator, the reader should have access to all the basic information that Mary does, including who her friends are and what they look like. But failing to point out that Delilah is someone she knows at the beginning of the scene leads the reader to believe there’s something mysterious about the woman’s identity. They wonder who she is, what she’s doing here, and what her relationship to Mary is.

False tension misdirects the reader’s focus. It shifts their curiosity to potentially frivolous details the writer has left out (or put in) instead of placing it on the important plot points. Suppose that Delilah and Mary are close friends, and this fact is critical to the plot because we find out later that Delilah is working with the antagonist to undermine Mary’s goal. This initial framing of her as an unfamiliar woman weakens the drama of the plot. If Delilah is a good friend of Mary’s, it will hurt that much more when she betrays her, not to mention that her reason for doing it must be really intriguing.

While one little moment like this might not impact the plot so much, if the book is filled with them, you might be leading your reader on some meaningless chases, diverting their attention multiple times from the story as a whole with some not-so-careful wording.

To keep false tension at bay, make sure you’re giving the reader proper access to the point-of-view character’s knowledge if you’re writing in a 1st person or 3rd person limited narrativeYou may not want them to know everything, but you don’t want them in the dark unnecessarily. (This can be tricky with an unreliable narrator, but if you base that unreliability more on the character’s bias than on them lying to the reader, you can more easily stay away from false tension.)

Also, you should identify and prioritize what you want the reader to think about as they read your scene. Suppose that in the example above, Delilah is about to tell Mary something important that she heard in the meeting she just came out of. Even if Mary and our reader don’t realize the importance of this yet, this is a fact we want to draw our reader’s attention to, because it may turn out to be a critical clue to the upcoming big reveal that Delilah is working with the antagonist.

Avoiding false tension comes down to respecting your reader—and trusting them. If you’re not confident in your writing, you might think you give things away too easily, and feel like you need to hide almost everything so the reader doesn’t get bored halfway through the book because they already know the big twist. I’ve got a lot of experience analyzing plots—it’s my job—and I still miss things because the author was so good at weaving them in subtly.

When I read, I love that rush of a great plot twist that is both hidden from me until the reveal moment and built upon moments I did see, allowing me to go back and put the pieces together. Many of my authors have managed to surprise me with their plots in at least one small way, from the seasoned to the rookie. The truth is, you’re probably better at crafting the careful details of your plot than you think you are. Respect that your reader doesn’t want to be tricked by false tension, and have faith in your ability to balance the secret with the tease.

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