Friday, February 17, 2006

Dinner Reservations?

My husband took me out to a wonderful dinner last night. It’s one of his weaknesses—good food and wine. When we lived in Orange County, California—and before we had children—this wasn’t a problem. There were many excellent restaurants within easy driving distance. But last night was the first time since we’ve been in Arizona that we went to a nice restaurant. Actually, it was the first time since our anniversary since we’d been out anywhere together without kids.

I think most of us have good memories of a nice restaurant on a special occasion or a memorable meal. So it seems natural for us to create those kinds of situations in our books. Right?

Donald Maass doesn’t think so. In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook he calls these low-tension scenes. He says the most controversial part of his workshop is where he tells authors “to cut scenes set in kitchens or in living rooms or in cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee” (know how often Starbucks shows up in my book?) “or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages.”

Often these scenes are skimmable. They don’t add new dimensions to the characters, or deepen conflict or complicate matters. They relax tension and review what’s happened. Basically a Sequel in Swain/Bickham terminology.

And I have to admit, when we went out to dinner last night, it was pretty low tension. Except for when my daughter called in tears because the dog had taken her brother’s piece of pizza, and she was afraid the dog was going to get sick. He’s allergic to animal protein. Yes, I know, we have a weird family—even the dog.

In real life, I want a low-tension dinner. I don’t want Peter to tell me he’s been fired, or we’re being investigated by the FBI, or he lost one of the kids. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear that someone’s been stalking me or torched our minivan. However, I’ll happily do that to my characters.

And yet, can you imagine a novel with no eating or drinking or driving or showering scenes? No. So what do you do?

Well, obviously famous writers make it work. Maass uses the example of the Da Vinci Code. While a good portion of the book can be a study in what not to do, Brown’s pacing at the beginning is quite good. And lest you think this only applies to commercial or genre fiction, Maass goes on to use two literary examples: Sister Noon and The Lovely Bones. While we don’t typically think of literary works as being tension-filled, there has to be a question, something we want to find out that keeps us reading. Tension and unease do this. We’ll keep reading to see what happens next.

I’ll be brave and look at my recently completed manuscript for these low-tension scenes in the first fifty pages. I’ll admit it. I have a car ride and three lunch scenes in the first fifty pages. Yikes! (I also have two car chases and a gang initiation.) However, no one has complained about the lack of tension. Here’s why I think that is. Kyle, who has just met Heather, is giving her and his friend Bernie a ride out to lunch with a couple of other people from church. I added tension to this scene in a couple of ways. One, Heather is interested in Kyle so you have all those little jitters going on. Two, she just found out he’s a cop, and she’s not sure how she feels about that. Three, Bernie keeps bringing up the day’s sermon, a topic that makes Heather uncomfortable. So I use the car as a way to force Heather into an uncomfortable situation with no easy escape.

And I don’t let the tension up at the restaurant. I actually wasn’t going to write this scene, but Mike Synder made me do it (gotta blame him for something). Mostly I was afraid that it would be a boring scene, but at his encouragement, I switched to Kyle’s POV and built up tension by having him and Bernie both being interested in Heather and doing a little positioning for her attention.

The next two lunch scenes are settings for conflict too. One, Heather’s stalker ex-boyfriend shows up while she’s having lunch. And in the other Kyle’s friend Joe basically calls Kyle a chicken for not asking Heather out yet.

Ultimately, I think the point Maass is making is not that scenes involving food, drink or cars are bad, just that writers often uses them as crutches for weak writing. So keep the tension up in your lunch and dinner scenes. In your writing that is. In real life it’ll just give you indigestion.

I know y’all aren’t shy. Anybody care to share how they infuse their “no-no” scenes with tension? I need some ideas for my current book.


  1. Your scenes have plenty of tension. I get what he's saying, but I also agree with what you said. If we're going to use these normally mundane situations, then we need to make sure there's a reason for it. To use them to propel the story forward.

    In suspense you also need rest periods for the reader. Not too much, but you do need them. At least that's my opinion. For what it's worth! =)

  2. Tell that to Anne Tyler!

    Okay, I'm a fan of Maass too and bristled at his suggestion to dump all the 'ordinary' settings. But I think if you buy into his overarching principle (and I do) of conflict on every page, then it doesn't matter where scenes are set--as long as there's believable tension.

    From what I can tell, you've got nothing to worry about there. The scene that comes to mind is the one where Kyle excuses himself to the men's and fifteen seconds later Heather's life is upended. I do believe that was in a coffee shop.

    Sabrina makes a good point as well. Great art is about tension and repose. All tension all the time wears me out. Too much navel gazing puts me to sleep. But I think the 'scene/sequel structure' (Bickham, Swain, Bell) and the 'conflict on every page' (Maass) mantras will keep most of us out of trouble.

    And Peter...way to go, man!

    (Guess you neglected to inform her that when the FBI came around asking about one of the missing kids, that your boss freaked out and fired you, which upset the dog so much that his protein-buzz induced a flaming burp and torched the minvan.


    Hope you sprung for dessert.)

  3. Jen, Mike needs to come with a warning label. You need to edit his comments or something. It's barely 8:00 and I'm not really awake. I'm just cruising and started laughing so hard at his comments I would have spit things out if I had been eating or drinking. Luckily I was only chewing gum but still, that got all tangled up for a bit.

    But to be fair, he only repeated your own words. *g*

    And don't sweat the dog, my neighbor's Pitt Bull, Pele, is allergic to almost everything. She can't eat anything that comes from two legged animals, many vegetables are a no-no. Can you imagine their food bill for that dog with the special stuff they have to buy for her? Never mind she won't eat only dry food, it has to be mixed with wet or she won't touch it. She's also allergic to humans. That's like being allergic to yourself almost. No wonder the dog has issues. :)

  4. I haven't read Maass, but I think you have to distinguish right off the bat whether the conflict is internal or external. A character-driven story dealing with conflict of mind or spirit can be set anywhere. If done right, an entire book could take place in the mind of a wheelchair-bound grandpa in the corrider of a nursing home. And it could be chilling, funny, poignant, or all of the above, depending on where the author decided to go with it.

    Look at Dostoevsky. Or Salinger. Or Jane Austen. How many gripping, story-stealing scenes are set around a table or walking down a street or when a character is all alone with his thoughts?

    Keep your coffee shops, Jen. Unless, of course, your ultimate goal is to have Vin Diesel star in the movie. Then you'd better have the undercover FBI officer-posing-as-barista dive across the counter sweeping your heroine out of harm's way just as a flaming, humane-society minivan crashes into the storefront, shattering glass, and releasing its cargo of snarling, allergy-prone dogs to terrorize the city.

    Glad you had a nice dinner!

  5. I think what we're all talking about here is good and reminds me of a pitfall I think many writers fall into. They blindly want to follow the "rules" without truly understanding the point behind them: good storytelling. Now, in our toolbox can be a lot of these kinds of things that Maass recommends. I like to use them as a guide or check list to make sure I'm not slipping into bad habits.

    And, like Jeanne pointed out, tension takes a variety of forms. I think one of reasons Maass included some literary examples, like the Lovely Bones, is for that reason. That book is a good example. The worst has already happened: the girl is dead at the beginning of the book. Kind of hard to keep tension after that, and yet Sebold does.

    Though as far as lunch scenes go, Mike's idea to have Russell's dog Sonny pee on their honored guest is a great way to add tension to the scene.

    Mike definitely needs to come with a warning label. :) I don't think I've created a blog yet that is Mike-proof.

    And, oh yeah, we had dessert. Flourless chocolate torte with fudge sauce and this amazing dark chocolate swirl thing. Wow! I was in heaven.

  6. Good post, Jen. It's so easy to fall into following the rules. I have to be careful not to. Maass even said in the seminar I went to that the opposite is true too. Put a gun fight or a dead body in every scene is tension filled but it sure does get boring. LOL!