tension edit cat

Tools for Writers: The Tension Edit

Every so often I learn about a tool or technique that I find useful. I figured some of you might want to give them a try, too. So this is my first in what will be an ongoing Tools for Writers series.

This is a post I originally wrote for Selah Tay-Song‘s Things I Wish I’d Known (#TIWIK) series. Selah read my Writing Process post and was intrigued by my use of the tension edit. She asked me to contribute a post about it for her series, and I was delighted to oblige her. (Thank you, Selah!)

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The Tension Edit: Creating a Page-Turner

Tension. Without it your book’s plot falls flat. But what creates it? Simply put: worry. When readers worry about your characters, they’re compelled to turn the pages. Raise questions on every page: “What’s gonna happen?” “Why did she do that?” “How will he react to this?” and you’ll hook your readers. But how do you do that page after page for 200, 300, 400+ pages? By using micro-tension to create concerns (minor and not-so-minor). Micro-tension can directly point to your book’s primary question, or it can introduce smaller concerns that underlie that question (aspects of character motivation and secondary plot, for instance). And the best tool I’ve found for creating micro-tension is a tension edit*.

Okay… So what’s a tension edit?

It’s a page-by-page edit with the manuscript pages taken completely out of order. It divests you, the writer, of context and permits you to focus on clarity (and tension) within each sentence in order to plant those nagging little questions for your readers.

Why is the manuscript out of order?

Micro-vision = micro-tension. It’s easy to get caught up in a scene and miss its components. By removing the “big picture” you can focus on the individual building blocks of each sentence, paragraph, and page. (Note: The tension edit is the last step before copyediting.)

Sounds crazy. How does this madness work?

It starts with a full, unmarked manuscript and open floor space. Uh, why? Because you’re going to spend twenty minutes throwing your entire manuscript around the room. Yes, really. (Hint: If you have young children, task them with this part of the process. They’ll love you for it.) The physical act of scattering your book everywhere breaks you from the “My Precioussss” syndrome that developed while you were writing and doing the big picture edits.
Now that you have paper everywhere, pick up the pages (check beneath furniture and behind the couch; trust me on this), and make sure none is in sequential order. Get your red pen, take a deep breath, and begin. You’re looking for opportunities to raise questions by:

  • Manipulating pace and mood.
  • Making your content work on multiple levels.
  • Creating a sense of unease. (This is where action or, sometimes, inaction speaks louder than words.)

Examples from Famine

Example A:


Original: Bartholomew skirted the woman and the pale, plucked carcass she’d thrust into his path, his thoughts uninterrupted.

Tension edit note: Bartholomew skirted the woman and the pale, plucked carcass she’d thrust into his path, his thoughts uninterrupted.


Published version: Bartholomew skirted the butcher and the pale, plucked carcass that the man had thrust into his path.

Crows. Doubtless they were haunting him for a reason.

Why these changes?: (Putting aside the butcher’s sex change.) There was no reason to state “his thoughts uninterrupted” when it could be shown by Bartholomew’s actions and thought (Crows.). That simple change served five purposes:

  1. It showed his thoughts being uninterrupted.
  2. It made for a more physically and emotionally dynamic passage.
  3. It conveyed something about Bartholomew’s character and physicality. (He’s focused, forward moving, agile.)
  4. Including his thought hinted at a greater dynamic in play (beyond what appears in the scene).
  5. It made the crows into characters.

(Note: This is what I mean when I say your content should work on multiple levels.)

What questions have been raised?: Who is Bartholomew? Why is he so focused? Why are the crows following him? How can the crows have enough sentience to be following him deliberately? How does he know they’re following him?

Example B:

Original: Mrs. Henderson lifted the bowl of water from the dining room table. “This has never been about revenge, Monsieur.” She went to the kitchen.

Bartholomew met Matilde’s gaze expecting her to pepper him with questions that followed her governess’s line of conversation, but the girl surprised him.

“Whatever is between you and Mrs. Henderson makes no difference, Monsieur. This is about avenging Samuel for me…”

Tension edit note: Mrs. Henderson lifted the bowl of water from the dining room table. “This has never been about revenge, Monsieur.” She went to the kitchen.

Bartholomew met Matilde’s gaze expecting her to pepper him with questions that followed her governess’s line of conversation, but the girl surprised him.

“Whatever is between you and Mrs. Henderson makes no difference, Monsieur. This is about avenging Samuel for me…”

Published version: “This has never been about revenge,” Mrs. Henderson said before she disappeared into the hallway. The rattle of his tea service and the squeak of the floorboards followed.

Matilde spoke without looking up from her work. “Whatever is between you and Mrs. Henderson makes no difference. For me this is about vengeance…”

Why these changes?: As with Example A, here the initial passage told the reader about Bartholomew’s expectations and surprise rather than showed them. The editorial note got the readers further into Bartholomew’s mind, but still didn’t show his reaction, nor did it trust them to pick up on the subtleties of the moment. While questions were created, they were soft. The final passage strengthened those questions by:

  1. Cutting out the telling aspects of the exchange and plunging the readers into Bartholomew’s point of view.
  2. Adding sensory details to emphasize Mrs. Henderson’s departure and disapproval.
  3. Assuming that readers understand Bartholomew and Matilde enough by now (this is page 136) to recognize her show of maturity and to know that he sees it, too.
  4. Strengthening Matilde without lessening Bartholomew. In fact, removing the telling aspect of the initial version empowered him with silence. (No reaction is a valid and, often, weighty reaction.)

What questions have been raised?: How will Bartholomew respond to Mrs. Henderson’s disapproval? Will she do something to defy him and stop Matilde from having her revenge? What are Matilde’s intentions? Is she about to start trouble? Will he let her?

what a messThe tension edit has taught me to look for opportunities on every page to make readers wonder. It has forced me to make each sentence convey multiple meanings and to build a bigger picture by constantly raising questions. And it’s made my books page-turners. Better yet, since I began using this tool, my draft writing has become tighter and cleaner.

If you want to increase clarity and build tension in your writing, divest yourself of the context of your sentences and paragraphs by utilizing the tension edit. You’ll see your stories for the opportunities that they are (or aren’t but should be), and every sentence in your work will drive your reader to wonder: What’s gonna happen?

*Note: Credit goes to agent Donald Maass for introducing me to this technique.

  • www.writersinkville.com

    A great post to share with my writing group. Thanks!

    • Monica Enderle Pierce

      You’re welcome. I hope they find it useful. 😀

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