If only you could add the right ingredients and without watching the flame, maintain a roiling, steam-producing rhythm without the flame rising too high or sinking too low. But more cooks can smoothly simmer spaghetti than writers can instinctively reach The End with optimal heat.
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward (though not necessarily painless) method every writer can use. And it’s easier than boiling an egg.
The answer is an outline, but a unique one. Novelists frequently associate outlining with the first draft, since a plans promotes credibility and causality from the start. Besides, if you get stuck, as often afflicts the novel’s middle, at least you know where you thought you were headed.
Useful as such can outline is, it won’t help you assess tension. Here’s something that will:
For each scene, complete first I then II. Because you want to focus on conflict, it’s crucial to start with the obstacle, desire, force, or change driving the scene. Hint: verbs best express that.
I. Write one brief, non-detailed, super-short sentence that captures what the scene’s point of view character wants—or doesn’t. Here are a few examples:
Abe covets Beth’s reassurance that their marriage remains sound.
Carol fears humiliation if Don dismisses her flirtation as ridiculous.
Ed agonizes over Dr Fred sharing only part of the medical truth.
* Part I reflects tension and suspense. Passion, sexual or otherwise, is always involved.
2. A brief contextual statement of where the characters are and what happens. Such as:
Beth arrives late at the restaurant she reluctantly agreed to and leaves Abe there alone.
Don ignores Carol rubbing herself against him during a study session at the college library.
Dr Fred admits that Ed is ill but refuses details even when Ed insists.
* Part II is context. It’s where the characters are and what happens to them.
Like most things, this technique gets faster and easier with practice. Stick with it, though, and you’ll have a way to evaluate whether each scene possesses the oomph to be a scene. More important, you’ll not only know what happens, but what matters. Readers choose fiction for the emotion it evokes, and that comes from—high stakes.
Tip: Whichever method you choose, assess the tension in every scene of your novel.